EU draft space policy calls for more military involvement

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PARIS – A draft summary of the European Commission’s space policy raises the issue of retooling Europe’s Galileo navigation and Copernicus Earth observation programs to make them more attractive to Europe’s military forces and whether Europe’s spaceport in South America should receive commission financing.

The six-page summary, dated July and now being presented to European Union (EU) member states and to European industry, raises the issue of Europe’s continued dependence on the United States for an average of 60 percent of the payload electronics on board European satellites.

DG GROW, the European Commission directorate-general responsible for most EU space programs, cautioned that the six-page draft is nowhere near final and is intended mainly to structure the discussion of the policy. The final policy is scheduled to be published by November.

Any EU space policy with real teeth is likely to meet resistance in some European capitals, and perhaps at the 22-nation European Space Agency (ESA) as well. Several EU nations, notably Germany, have made clear they do not want the EU to usurp power and responsibility from ESA.

The reasoning is that ESA guarantees that member states’ investment will return in the form of contracts to each government’s national industry. The EU has no such policy and tries to award contracts on value-for-money bases only.

For now, the EU is the owner of the Galileo and Copernicus systems. How far its member states will let to expand into other areas – military satcom, military-grade Earth observation and space surveillance – remains to be seen.

Here are several of the document’s policy suggestions and their background:

Pushing for more military use of space assets

— “[I]ncreased synergies between civilian and security activities could reduce costs and improve efficiency,” the commission document says.

The document specifically mentions the Galileo positioning, navigation and timing network, now being assembled, whose resolutely nonmilitary label tends to obscure the fact that the system includes a secure signal designed for civil security and military use. Among other advantages, Galileo’s reputation as civil only has allowed European defense ministries to avoid paying a share of the system’s costs.

Europe’s Copernicus Earth observation system is likewise civil/commercial in nature and has steered clear of high-resolution satellite systems. These are left to individual governments in Europe to develop, notably France, Italy, Germany and Spain. But EU officials have said a high-resolution capacity alongside the current Copernicus could further European collaboration in an area that has resisted multilateral efforts in the past.

Joint military satellite telecommunications efforts have similarly been scuttled, with the notable exception of a Franco-Italian program, as nations have been unable to agree on common development schedules and cost division.

An industry consortium is under contract to the European Defense Agency to propose a development model designed to build a Govsatcom system that would be owned by the EU. The consortium, which includes Airbus Defence and Space, Euroconsult, CGI, Hisdesat, SpaceTec Partners and Italy’s International Affairs Institute, is scheduled to produce its findings by the end of this year.

It is unclear whether Britain’s planned exit from the EU would help or hinder Govsatcom. Britain has long had its own military satellite telecommunications system, as have France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

An EU role in financing Europe’s spaceport

— Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport, on the northeast coast of South America, is a priority “that may need to be addressed at European level,” the document says.

The EU currently pays nothing for the spaceport despite the facility’s recognized status as a critical infrastructure indispensible to Europe’s space strategy. The European Space agency and the French government pay most of the costs of the facility, which is located on French territory, with the Arianespace commercial-launch service provider paying the variable costs.

Minimizing dependence on U.S. payload electronics

— “Europe is … highly dependent on non-European systems and critical technologies, particularly from the U.S.,” the document says. “This impacts the ability of Europe to export its products. Specific measures could be put in place with a view to supporting competitiveness, ensuring non-dependence and promoting the use of space.”

European officials estimate that on average around 60 percent of payload electronics on European satellites is imported from the United States. This gives the U.S. government veto power over their export.

European officials say the problem is not that U.S. products are necessarily better than European hardware, and the stronger U.S. dollar has mitigated the cost advantage as well – but not entirely.

Given the size of the U.S. government space market, U.S. companies can maintain production lines year in and year out, and realize scale economies, in ways that European companies cannot sustain.

With individual nations’ industries demanding preferred treatment by their governments, pooling and sharing of industrial capacity to allow a few designated companies to maintain production lines has been difficult.