The United States and France signed documents at the Pentagon Feb. 8 to address national security space issues, particularly to monitor space debris.

This is the first time the U.S. has signed such an agreement with a NATO ally.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the bilateral statement of principles on space situational awareness should address a key security challenge of this century–a finding by the new national security space strategy that space is increasingly “congested, contested and competitive.”

As well, more and more nations are using space for a variety of purposes, increasing the odds of accidental collision with spacecraft and manned craft or the space station.

” At the same time, space-based technologies underpin many essential civilian and defense capabilities, precision navigation, climate monitoring, secure communications and natural disaster warnings,” he said. “Space situational awareness agreements like this one help us mitigate these and other risks by sharing information and pooling our varied capabilities. This arrangement will foster safety and reduce the chances of mishaps, misperceptions and mistrust. Such cooperation is a key aspect of the national security space strategy.”

In January, Raytheon [RTN] and Lockheed Martin [LMT] each won $107 million contracts to work on space-surveillance systems for the Air Force. The follow-on contract is for the next phase of the service’s Space Fence program, which includes manned and unmanned space operations. The system is used to detect floating space debris that can damage satellites. The Air Force wants the space fence to be able to track as many as 200,000 objects in low Earth orbit, compared to the 20,000 or so tracked today.

The United States is pursuing similar space situational awareness agreements with other nations under its new space policy, most recently signing one with Australia in 2010 .

French Defense Minister Alain Juppe said he wanted to emphasize the high level of confidence he believes the two nations share in political dialogue and military cooperation. The signing of a declaration of principles, laying out the principles of a new and ambitious partnership in terms of space situational awareness, is a “symbol of this will to cooperate.”

Signing the agreement between the U.S. and another NATO country is a first, Juppe said. “Through all our space capabilities, France is a reliable partner. In a mutual interest, our two countries have decided to reinforce their defense-space cooperation in order to safeguard access and use of space with a peaceful end in view.”