European Commission official presses Govsatcom case

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WASHINGTON — Emboldened by waning public resistance to shared defense activities across European Union member states, the European Commission is making a harder push to forge a shared government satellite communications capability for Europe.

This shared capability, referred to as Govsatcom, has been stuck at the discussion stage for years, with dissenters casting the proposal as European Commission overreach. Now, a change in mood has created a more favorable atmosphere for Govsatcom, inching the program closer to reality.

Speaking Dec. 7 at the EU-U.S. Second Space Policy Conference at the George Washington University here, Pierre Delsaux, deputy director general of the European Commission’s DG Grow, said discussions about defense at the European Commission level are no longer taboo.

“A few years ago …  saying that you wanted to do something at the European Commission level with respect to defense, you [would] hear only screams from everywhere. Now things have changed,” he said.

For the space sector, new Govsatcom momentum is the biggest consequence of this change. Two major European Commission documents — the Space Strategy for Europe, released in October, and the European Defence Action Plan, released in November — highlight a desire within the EU to leverage the continent’s space capabilities for defense purposes.

But an agreed-upon desire to see a shared Govsatcom capability doesn’t equate to a shared vision of how this would happen. Delsaux said there are currently multiple ideas for how Govsatcom could materialize.

One possibility is the pooling together of capacity through existing milsatcom constellations. Spain, France, Germany, Italy and the U.K. all have defense telecommunications satellites of their own, and Luxembourg is creating a joint venture with domestic operator SES to provide military satellite communications for the country and its allies.

Another possibility is relying collectively on commercial operators, Delsaux said, noting that some member states have already taken this approach for their own needs.

“And you have another possibility, which is the European Commission building a satellite or satellites to help operate a governmental satellite communication [system],” he added.

Govsatcom could also be a combination of these solutions. “All those possibilities are on the table,” Delsaux said.

The European Commission is working on Govsatcom with the European Defence Agency and the European Space Agency. The European Defence Agency has been leading the development of Govsatcom’s functional requirements while ESA has been studying the system’s technical requirements.

Delsaux said the European Commission launched an impact assessment to study all possible options for Govsatcom. The assessment evaluates, among other things, the price tag for these varied approaches.

“We hope that we will be able to deliver this impact assessment for fall of next year,” he said.

Other initiatives that could impact the space sector include shoring up Europe’s defense industrial base and creating a research fund for defense technologies. Delsaux referenced this as another example of the changing mood in Europe toward collective defense investments.

“A year ago just raising this, using EU money for the defense sector, not only would I have been killed by the ministry of defense, but even by my lawyers, because from a legal point of view it was perceived as totally impossible. Now it’s possible, so we will use EU money to fund the research of [the] defense sector, not to replace the research which is being done at the member state level, but in addition to what is being done by the member states,” he said.

Delsaux said the high cost of national defense is one of the main reasons European sentiments about shared defense have changed. There is a benefit for countries that are or consider themselves too small to invest in substantial programs, such as owning a satellite, on their own. Delsaux used his home country, Belgium, as an example.

“When we had the attacks in Brussels, we had a secure system of communications which was there, except when it was tested for real during the attacks, it failed,” he said, referring to three coordinated suicide bombings that killed 32 civilians in March. “It was impossible for the police forces to communicate.”

Delsaux said the police reverted to using the popular mobile communications app WhatsApp as a result of the communications blackout, but this did not provide the same security of a military system.

“Belgium developing a space governmental satellite communications [system]  is very expensive, so again, by working together you can develop something which will be beneficial for everybody,” he said.