The European Union is eyeing development of its own space surveillance network. The rationale put forth by European space officials — the need for independence from the U.S. Air Force’s Space Surveillance Network (SSN) — echoes the inception of Galileo, Europe’s rival to the Global Positioning System.
Let’s hope the rhetoric in Europe and the reaction in the United States will not spark a repeat of the politically charged Galileo flap. While a European space surveillance network raises some challenges for the U.S. military space community, it also would provide opportunities for improved trans-Atlantic cooperation in space.
There are some understandable reasons the Europeans want a counterpart to the SSN. Europe as a whole already is a major civil space power. And as the European Union moves toward a more unified military space strategy, its stakes in space will get higher. Thus, there is more thought being given in Europe these days to ensuring satellite protection.
A March 2005 report to the European Commission by a panel of space experts states that in order for Europe to protect its space operations, it requires “the ability to monitor what is happening in space in order to ensure that we understand whence might originate sources of potential threats.” The report explains that threats might include not only deliberate attack, but also possible collisions with space debris.
European space experts are increasingly worried, and rightly so, about the proliferation of debris as the use of space expands to ever-more actors. Even tiny pieces of space junk can take out a satellite because of the high speeds of orbital impacts. And some parts of space in the most commonly used orbits already are heavily polluted. According to Dr. Heiner Klinkrad, a debris specialist at ESA’s Space Operations Center, space operators can expect an average of one destructive collision every 10 years. NASA puts today’s chances of a “catastrophic” debris impact on the international space station or the space shuttle at 1 in 200.
However, the other reason cited by the commission panel for concluding that the lack of an independent space surveillance network is “a serious capability gap that must be one of the priorities of the future European Space Program” no doubt will, and should, give U.S. officials some pause. That is: The United States in the future might not be a trustworthy source of orbital data. The panel notes that while the United States provides most space tracking data used by Europe for free, “this situation could change in the near future and the data already provided are not exhaustive or [may] not be made available at the needed time.”
According to a May 2 article in Space News, European space experts are concerned about the increasing secrecy surrounding U.S. space operations. Furthermore, the Europeans are worried by the Pentagon’s new emphasis on space control and the consideration of space weaponry for a number of applications. European nations are unified in their opposition to space weaponization and view emerging U.S. space strategy and doctrine, in particular its pre-emptive nature, with an extremely wary eye.
More than one European space official has asked privately how unverifiable U.S. data about an adversary’s suspected activities in space could be trusted in a crisis, given U.S. claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
The commission panel ominously asserts, “Europe can no longer assume a fortuitous coincidence of interest with the USA.” It also notes that beyond ensuring the security of European space assets, a space surveillance network “must contribute to the control of the application of the International Space Treaties and to the evaluation of the activities of the space-faring nations or organizations.”
These sentiments should not simply be rejected in the United States as political rhetoric designed to cover yet another effort to bolster Europe’s space industry – as justifiably was suspected in the case of Galileo. And while the anti-American tone of the report is troubling, overreacting with a campaign to block such a project is unlikely to be a successful strategy, or wise. Indeed, such European concerns ought to serve as a wake-up call to the Pentagon about the need for a concerted effort to explain its emerging plans for military space, and space warfare, to U.S. allies and friends.
But in order to avoid a Galileo-like skirmish, both sides will need to cast aside traditional cultural biases and foster cooperation on some middle ground.
U.S. space officials should embrace the European idea as a welcome opportunity to enhance both sides’ space surveillance and collision avoidance capabilities. This means that the U.S. space surveillance community will have to overcome its culture of secrecy, as Maj. Tommy A. Roberts of the Air Force’s Directorate of Plans and Programs recommended in an article in the Winter 2005 issue of High Frontier Journal. While it always will be true that the national interest requires some secrets to be kept, there are benefits to judicious transparency.
At the same time, those European space officials (led by the French) pushing the independence concept should consider whether the European Union might benefit from space surveillance capabilities that were at least partially integrated with, rather than totally separated from, those of the United States. After all, Norway and Britain already are linked to the SSN through the Fylingdales and Globus radars. There is no reason why there cannot usefully be “concentric circles” of space surveillance activity. Nor is it necessary to flog the anti-American horse in order to justify Europe creating its own network.
While the SSN is the best space surveillance network in the world, improvements are needed. For example, better detection and tracking capabilities are required for smaller objects, especially in the geostationary orbit, which is home to most of the largest commercial communications satellites. Indeed, improving space surveillance is one of the Air Force’s top priorities.
Perhaps new European sensors (optical and radar telescopes) could be designed specifically to fill some of the SSN’s shortfalls, and current sensors, such as the fundamental astronomic geodetic network tracking and imagery radar in Germany and the GRAVES (Grand reseau adapte a la veille spatiale) radar “fence” in France, could be used to augment SSN data, and vice versa.
Perhaps observations could be timed in a coordinated manner to ensure more continuous coverage, and data from the two networks combined to provide better certainty of a space object’s orbital trajectory.
Neither side will win, however, if the space surveillance arena becomes the next political football in the trans-Atlantic space arena. It can only be hoped that the lessons of the Galileo dispute are heeded by all involved.
Theresa Hitchens is vice president of the Center for Defense Information, a non-partisan think tank in Washington.