LILLE,France — A multibillion-dollar Earth observation system designed to provide a broad stream of satellite data on environmental phenomena should be wide-open for use by
Europe‘s militaries, one of the program’s sponsors said Sept. 16.

Guenter Verheugen, vice president of the European Commission, the executive arm of the 27-nation European Union, said the recently named Kopernikus network, formerly called Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), should be considered as a dual-use resource from the start.

“I want to have users from the military field,” Verheugen said here during the Forum GMES 2008 conference held to discuss Kopernikus applications. “I have no hesitation about this. I want them. It is a dual-use project.”

Kopernikus is intended as a network of satellites and ground-based sensors designed to provide information on weather, ocean currents, land use and atmospheric conditions. It also is intended to be used as a tool for security-related issues including emergency response, monitoring of refugee camps and verification of treaties.

Early Kopernikus services are entering operations starting this year, with others to follow in the next three years.

The program is being funded by the commission’s multiyear research budget and by the European Space Agency (ESA), both of which generally distance themselves from any involvement with the military.

But Verheugen wants to abolish that taboo from the start, hoping to avoid a debate that continues to hound Europe‘s other flagship space-infrastructure project, the Galileo satellite navigation system. It remains unclear to what extent European military forces will be able to use Galileo, which is Europe‘s version of the U.S. GPS satellite network, for positioning and timing signals.

Kopernikus backers also have been reluctant to openly discuss military applications, but indications at the Forum GMES 2008 held here Sept. 16-17 are that Kopernikus‘ dual-use nature is no longer viewed as an embarrassment.

Karl von Wogau, a German member of the European Parliament and author of a report on European security strategy, proposed that the Kopernikus system’s satellites – funded by ESA and individual European nations’ research budgets – be merged with European military reconnaissance satellites into a single system.

“Currently in the military observation systems are French, German and Italian and only slowly are we getting these systems to work together,” von Wogau said. “Military organizations [in
Europe] are developing a common architecture for the future. We want to avoid duplication of military and civil systems. I would propose that these systems be combined.”

The presence of the European Union Satellite Centre at the conference suggests how far civilian backers of Kopernikus have come in their view of its uses. The center, located in Torrejon, Spain, was created to give Europe a single source of satellite-based reports on military and security-related crises.

The center’s director, Franck Asbeck, said European governments’ unwillingness to share classified data with each other has led to a situation in which the center gets 80 percent of its satellite imagery from U.S. commercial sources.

Asbeck called for Kopernikus developers to “involve the security community” more fully into the system’s design and operations so that civilian and military users can benefit from each other’s work. “There is not always an awareness in the security community of what ESA and the [European Commission] are doing,” Asbeck said.

Alda Silveira Reis, deputy director for defense of the European Union Council General Secretariat, said Europe‘s defense and security forces should be able to access Kopernikus “just like any other user – just like meteorological users.”

For example, in the past the French navy has used data on ocean currents from civilian ocean-monitoring satellites to illustrate the dual-use nature of satellites. Such data “can be extremely useful for amphibious landings,” Reis said.

Claude-France Arnould, director for defense of the European Union Council General Secretariat, urged that Kopernikus include defense and security applications from the start.

Uses of Kopernikus data could include crisis monitoring, military-theatre management, and providing simulation and training tools for military forces.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.