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NATO wants to work with tech start-ups on space defence. Secrecy is proving to be a huge obstacle | Euronews

The commercial sector is struggling with a lack of information flow, such as which technologies NATO will require in the future, a NATO official said.

NATO has made no secret of its plans to work more closely with the commercial sector for its space defense ambitions but classification about certain topics can make it difficult for companies, a NATO official told Euronews Next.

At the alliance’s first space symposium in the French city of Toulouse last week, start-ups and large companies rubbed shoulders with NATO’s high-ranking officials clad in military uniform.

The French company Preligens showcased how their artificial intelligence (AI) system processes space data from satellites to show what is happening anywhere in the world, such as in North Korea, China or Russia.

The location of the Engels airbase in Russia, 750 km from the Ukrainian border, is typed into a computer. Defence ministries can then immediately see in real-time if there are any military aircraft or changes in activity.

Analysing this type of data would usually take two to four hours to check one single location, but this technology takes a few minutes, has a 95 per cent accuracy rate, and is so precise that it can even narrow down how many weapons the aircraft can carry.

The company has been working with NATO since 2019, as well as with the French Ministry of Defence (MOD), but it was not simple to form a partnership with the alliance.

“When we started working with NATO it was not easy, nothing is easy in business, nothing is easy in defence, and the fact that we have some proof points before with the French MOD helped us a lot,” Thomas Reignard, Preligens product marketing manager, told Euronews Next.

But he said as NATO is a big organisation, it was hard to get traction and speak to the right people.

“It’s hard for you sometimes to get some traction to identify key people. So it was a first step for us, but it’s hard in every defence contract to identify the key people,” he said.

NATO declared space was a priority for the organisation in 2019 when the Allies adopted NATO’s Space Policy and recognised space as a new operational domain, alongside air, land, sea, and cyberspace.

Working with the commercial sector is vital for NATO and defence ministries as it is an expensive domain and the technology is developing so rapidly. However, NATO will not solely rely on the commercial sector for space defence.

A NATO official told a press conference that the commercial sector is experiencing a range of challenges when it comes to working with governments and with NATO.

Space tech companies are struggling with the complexity of government organisations, but also with NATO as an organisation having very different entryways and different employment contacts, the official said.

The commercial sector is struggling with a lack of information flow, such as which technologies NATO will require in the future, the official added.

This is largely due to the high classification of the topics that NATO works on.

Another issue, the official said, is the long and complex procurement processes which can be difficult for companies as they need more funding to stay around during them.

Even though NATO is opening up to the commercial sector, it still has systems in place to prevent the influence of commercial interests or geopolitical conflicts.

“One of the first questions we ask is are there third parties or beyond that are a part of this? Is it a shell company to a Chinese Communist Party company, or otherwise. So we do those kind of due diligence checks,” Air Commodore Darren Whiteley, US Space Command’s Deputy Director of Policy and Plans said at a press conference to a small circle of journalists.

However, he said if the information provided by companies is being shared but there’s no risk to NATO, they “wouldn’t want to get in the way of commercial companies doing commercial business”.

“I think maybe when some of the activity might start to impinge on national or kind of collective security there will be a conversation,” Whiteley said.

NATO is working on its commercial space strategy and will take note of the commercial sector as to how it can establish a better working relationship.