— Research and industry ministers from 29 European governments endorsed a growing role of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Commission in space-based security and defense Sept. 26, and specifically said
‘s Galileo satellite-navigation system will be open to use by
‘s military forces.

Meeting in
, European Union research and industry ministers joined with their counterparts overseeing ESA as part of what is called a Space Council. The meeting produced a declaration that nudges ESA closer to becoming an avowedly dual-use agency bringing its technical expertise to bear on both civil and military-related programs.

The ministers endorsed an ESA proposal called Space Situation Awareness, which would federate military and civil ground-based space-surveillance assets in
and elsewhere into a single dual-use network. The long-term goal is to give European governments a capacity approaching the
and Russian space-surveillance networks for identifying objects in orbit.

ESA plans to ask its 17 member governments in November for 100 million euros ($144.7 million) over three years to begin assembling a network starting with ground-based optical and radar observation sites already existing in

Some of these assets, such as those in
, are 100 percent military-owned. Giving ESA a management authority over military installations would be unprecedented and reflects an emerging European government consensus that some of the boundaries between civil and defense or security programs are collapsing.

“[S]pace assets have become indispensable for our economy and their security must thus be ensured,” the ministers said in their Sept. 26 declaration, reflecting an idea that has long been central to U.S. Air Force space policy.

The ministers underlined “the need for
, in line with its ambition to strengthen its status as world-class space leader, to develop a European capability for monitoring and surveillance of its space infrastructure and of space debris.”

The inherently dual-use nature of satellite navigation has been a subject of occasionally sharp debate in Europe, particularly between Britain, which in the past has sought to deny Europe’s militaries the right to use Galileo, and France, which has said it expects to equip its forces with Galileo gear just as they now are equipped with U.S. GPS capacity.

It remains unclear what boundaries, if any, will be agreed to with respect to European military use of Galileo signals. The system is not expected to be operational until 2014.

But the Sept. 26 declaration applauds ESA’s plans to increase its dealings with the European Defense Agency, and says the European Union’s two flagship space investments, the Kopernikus Earth observation system and Galileo, “will provide services which may be of interest for some security applications.”

The statement cautions that “the uses made by any military users of Galileo or GMES [the former name for Kopernikus] must be consistent with the principle that [they] are civil systems under civil control.”