PARIS — The European Commission on April 4 said Europe should open a broad dialogue with China on space and toughen its industrial policy to assure European independence in critical space technologies.
The dialogue with China should be structured along lines similar to regular space policy consultations that the European Union (EU) has with the United States and Russia, the commission said in a document on space policy.
But in a reference to an ongoing dispute with China over frequencies to be used by European and Chinese positioning, navigation and timing satellite systems, the commission said it will “seek constructive solutions to issues of cooperation and sharing open frequencies in the field of satellite navigation.”
China has decided to place its encrypted, government-only navigation service on a section of radio spectrum that overlaps with Europe’s planned quasi-military service.
Neither China nor the European Union is violating international regulations on broadcast interference by stepping on each other’s frequencies, because no broadcast interference will result. But the overlap means that neither China nor Europe could jam the other’s encrypted signals in a time of conflict without also jamming its own.
The commission, which is the executive arm of the 27-nation European Union, also said the European Space Agency (ESA) should shed its remaining vestiges of all-civil status to treat civil and military space issues.
The document, “Towards a Space Strategy for the European Union that Benefits its Citizens,” pays the expected homage to the EU’s two flagship space programs — the Galileo navigation system and the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) Earth observation program — without addressing both programs’ ongoing financial issues. But it does break new ground in openly questioning whether the 18-nation ESA has a future other than under the commission’s supervision.
For both Galileo and GMES, the commission has used ESA as a technical adviser, co-investor and prime contractor for hardware development. ESA also has its own, separate budget provided by its member states, all but two of which — Norway and Switzerland — are EU members.
Debate over whether ESA should become a formal arm of the commission has been a subject of occasional friction between the two agencies for years. Commission officials have criticized ESA’s policy of guaranteeing its member states that their national industries will receive contracts corresponding to individual government contributions.
Commission officials also have occasionally suspected ESA of being too cozy with space hardware manufacturers.
ESA officials have responded that whatever the agency’s defects, it has made possible a European industry that generates 5.4 billion euros ($7.7 billion) in annual hardware revenue, employs more than 31,000 people and provides regular foreign exchange earnings via export contracts for space launch services, commercial satellites and related technologies.
“Discussions are ongoing in ESA regarding its future as an organization,” the document says. “ESA should continue to develop into an organization with an intergovernmental and an EU dimension in which military and civil programs can coexist. [ESA] will pursue closer ties with the EU and, according to need, will continue to have management structures geared solely towards EU programs.”
ESA in the past several years has taken many small steps to be able to manage systems that clearly have both civil and military utility. Agency managers are no longer reluctant to highlight the fact that, unlike the United States, Russia and China, in Europe it is the civil and commercial space industry that has set the stage for military space programs, not the reverse.
One program, called Space Situational Awareness, is an example of how far ESA has come. ESA governments in 2008 approved a three-year research effort budgeted at 50 million euros, with an agreement to consider a full-scale development effort at the next meeting of ESA government ministers.
Erwin Duhamel, head of ESA’s security strategy and partnership development office, said April 4 that the agency will present to its governments in 2012 both civil and military requirements for the Space Situational Awareness program to track what is in orbit. ESA has received military requirements for such a system from the European Defense Agency.
(Read more on space situational awareness at OnOrbitWatch.com, a Space News community site).