Editorial: Strategic Independence

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It produced the compromises and watered-down policy initiatives that one might expect of any mid-range planning activity involving 17 countries, but by the time European Space Agency (ESA) government ministers wrapped up their two-day summit in Berlin Dec. 6, a theme had emerged: protecting core European capabilities against outside threats.

The decisions taken by the ESA Council reflect a recognition that Europe’s own space-related capabilities are of critical strategic and economic importance and therefore must be preserved. This is not to say ESA will not continue to work closely with countries like the United States and Russia in various activities, particularly in human spaceflight, but it is clear that Europe is determined to protect its own interests and priorities at a time when the global space landscape is changing.

Perhaps the most vivid example was an initiative, approved by the ESA ministers, to establish European sources for space components that today are available only from abroad and typically from the United States. It is a response to the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which subject American space hardware and technology to restrictions that have made life difficult for European satellite manufacturers in their dealings with both U.S. companies and third-party customers. The U.S. export rules also have added a layer of complexity — nearly impenetrable in some cases — to cooperative projects between ESA and NASA.

Other initiatives in the ESA plan are designed to strengthen Europe’s space industry in the international marketplace. These include the AlphaSat communications-technology demonstration satellite and an effort to develop a new line of small geostationary communication satellites, both of which won endorsement and funding from the ESA Council.

In the space transportation arena, the ministers adopted a European version of the long time U.S. policy designed to protect and preserve a domestic rocket manufacturing and service industry. The U.S. policy, reaffirmed by the White House in January 2005, dictates that U.S. government payloads fly atop American-built rockets unless they are part of an international cooperative program or have been exempted by the president or a designated representative.

A similar policy was proposed for all European government payloads, but opposition from some ESA member states, along with the European Meteorological Satellite Organization, led the Council to adopt something far less sweeping. It gives preference to European rockets — including Russian-built Soyuz vehicles launched from the European spaceport in French Guiana — for launching ESA payloads only. It also establishes the Russian-built Rockot vehicle, marketed in partnership with a German company, as the preferred backup to ESA’s Vega, and requires back-up arrangements with non-European providers for Ariane 5 launches.

The policy favoring European rockets codifies what has long been the case in practice and falls well short of what has been adopted in the United States. But even in its watered-down form, the policy serves notice that Europe has judged the full range of space launch capabilities to be of strategic importance and is prepared to make investments to preserve them .

One area where Europe has yet to wean itself from dependence on the United States and Russia is human spaceflight. The ESA Council opted not to back development of the Russian-designed Clipper capsule, which appears today to be the most viable alternative to NASA’s planned Crew Exploration Vehicle for manned space exploration. But the council’s decision likely was due more to a lack of consensus on how an ESA-backed Clipper program would be managed than to a European endorsement of a U.S.-built Crew Exploration Vehicle serving as the sole means of transporting future astronauts to and from space. ESA likely will revisit the Clipper question in the near future.

Meanwhile, the ESA ministers strongly endorsed the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security effort, which seeks to marshal European Earth observation capabilities for meteorological, environmental-management and defense applications. Here again is an example of a space activity to which Europe has assigned strategic importance and signaled its determination to maintain a full range of independent capabilities.

The various decisions taken by the ESA Council during the Berlin summit make clear Europe’s concern that developments in the United States, India, China, Russia and elsewhere pose a competitive threat to Europe’s own interests in space. It is equally clear that Europe, like the others, is prepared to take the necessary steps to preserve its strategic independence in this arena.