OPED: What Agenda for Military Space in Europe?

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Steve Bochinger is manager of institutional affairs at Euroconsult, in Paris, and managed the report World Prospect for Government Space Markets published in March 2005

With the exception of France and the United Kingdom, European countries have long shown little interest in military space projects. Their armed forces, not much involved in overseas operations, had minor requirements for satellite communications and reconnaissance services and satisfied their needs through access to capacity provided by third parties. Consequently, the European space program has been primarily driven by the civil space agencies that provide 85 percent of the public financing for space in Europe.

However by the 1990s geopolitical changes and force modernization needs prompted the defense ministries of leading European countries to begin procuring dedicated satellite capabilities on a national basis. The change led to major duplications and redundancies in research and development spending. At present there are eight national systems for communications or surveillance/reconnaissance satellites either in operation or under development.

France has Helios for optical imagery, Syracuse for telecommunications and demonstrators in other application areas. The United Kingdom has Skynet for telecommunications. Italy has Sicral for telecommunications and Cosmo-Skymed for radar imagery. Germany has SAR-Lupe for radar imagery and Satcom Bw for telecommunications. Spain has Spainsat for telecommunications.

Multilateral cooperation has been limited so far to the exchange or lease of capacity or the interoperability of national systems for reconnaissance or communications. For example, a joint consortium of France, Italy and the United Kingdom provide NATO with super high frequency and ultra high frequency satellite service in the framework of the NATO Satcom Post 2000 program .

Europe has not yet succeeded in building a common and federative program in military space as it did in the civil sector with the European Space Agency . The question of whether, and eventually how and when, countries will decide to join efforts on the military side is central for both governments and industry.

The implementation of a cooperative program will require that decision makers face and analyze a number of key issues including, but not limited to, policy, the concept of the use of military satellite systems, fields of capabilities and financing schemes.

At the policy level, leading European countries have launched extensive reviews of their national defense policy, which marks a turning point for European defense. This is very positive for future cooperation in military space, as these policy initiatives generally converge in terms of content, objectives and schedules (national military reforms are expected to be completed by the end of the decade).

It may be generally recognized that cooperation will bring mutual benefits at both the national and European levels, but it will require a shared political vision to federate the domestic projects into new technological and application plans. Europe until now has lacked such a v ision, but initiatives such as the European Capabilities Action Plan , which defines common future space capability requirements for military operations, is a first step in this direction.

Key policy issues that are central for future cooperation choices include:

Progress in the development of the European Security and Defense Policy that will certainly be a prerequisite for a European military space program;

The level of satisfaction each nation has with its trans-A tlantic partnerships that may influence government decisions to implement autonomous capabilities at a European level.

There are several possible future cooperation frameworks in Europe that give decision makers several available options: multilaterally coordinated national initiatives, partnerships between a small number of countries or a fully integrated European program.

European countries have not theorized the use of space systems at the doctrinal level. They remain primarily driven by pragmatic purposes and financing concerns. Space assets are not considered a tool of dominance per se — which Europe would not be able to afford — but are integrated into global communications and intelligence capabilities.

To illustrate, only France has a dedicated budget line for military space.

As a matter of fact, most European military authorities do not have much experience and maturity in the management of satellite assets. Only the United Kingdom and France, and to a lesser extent Italy, benefit from lessons learned in this field .

European countries will have to agree on a common concept of use and integration of satellite systems in the overall military architecture. For instance, there is currently no common position on the Network Centric Warfare, and the United Kingdom is the only country to put the concept of Network Enabled Capabilities into the heart of its requirements.

In particular, countries will have to decide if they want to go beyond a strategic and political vision of military space and integrate satellite systems into larger operational and tactical purposes.

In terms of satellite capabilities, European countries have set the objective to fill major gaps with a priority on the fields of communications and imagery intelligence. The acquisition of domestic satellite systems has been identified as a key element of their equipment modernization plans.

Currently, national initiatives remain concentrated on communications and imagery, with little interest for other application areas. France is the exception with flight demonstrators for signals intelligence (SIGINT) — Essaim — laser communication (Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter) and early warning (SPIRALE).

A key question for European countries is to decide whether they limit their ambitions to these two operational applications and depend on third-party capabilities (i.e. American) for other areas, or accept that they will have to pay the price for developing autonomous technological and operational capabilities.

At a financing level, European governments have put non-priority budget areas, including space and defense, under pressure as a result of large budget deficits and growing social demands. Mid term budget perspectives are not expected to improve significantly, either for defense or military space, and without improbable shifts in priorities, budget constraints will be maintained.

In addition, European investment in military space remains highly cyclical, based on a few programs. To develop a European program will require stable and long-term budget planning with clear perspectives on governments’ financing capabilities.

To compensate for inadequate funding resources, European governments increasingly turn to alternative financing schemes such as Private Finance Initiatives (PFI). The U.K. Ministry of Defen ce is a pioneer in this field with a 2.5 billion pound ($4.7 billion) contract over 15 years for Skynet 5, which may stimulate some of its European counterparts to duplicate the PFI model. Governments will have to decide whether to perpetuate PFIs at a European scale, keeping in mind that it would be much more complex to implement at a European level than at a national level.

Perspectives for a strengthened European cooperation in military space have never been so favorable, with many positive factors making it an ideal time to start discussions between partners. However, decision makers have short time to make key decisions on the future of military space in Europe, since satellite systems currently implemented should be operational until 2015-2020.