The Argument for a European Space Strategy

Article published on March 8, 2004
community published
Article published on March 8, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

It’s not quite ‘star wars’ but it sometimes seems like it because space and its uses are strategically important for an ambitious Europe.

Where space is concerned, Europe is a well-anchored reality, flourishing even judging by current events. But astronomical activities are characterised by a complex framework - born of a recent history, this rocket has three floors. On the first floor, the national level where countries like France, Germany and Italy have built up a strong tradition in space. On the second floor, the European Space Agency (ESA). For more than 30 years this intergovernmental organisation has developed the continent’s space policy. On the third and final floor, the European Commission, involved from the beginning in two major space projects, Galileo and GMES.

A critical threshold for the European space industry

The success of European space programmes, symbolised by the Ariane rocket programme, should not allow the precariousness of the situation to be forgotten. Public spending in Europe on such activities is weak: 5.3 billion Euros against more than 30 billion in the United States. These figures are not unequivocal but if the difficult situation facing Europe’s bigger space manufacturers is taken into account, they should still set some alarm bells ringing. The Alcatel, Astrium or Alenia Spazio satellite assembly rooms are hardly rushed off their feet and the order books are almost empty. The European space industry has reached a critical threshold and weakness relative to public demand threatens the preservation of the European technological machine.

Space technology plays a strategic role for Europe, a role which will only increase in the future. Satellite infrastructures, and consequently the capacity of access to space, are at the heart of technology vital for European progress. Communication satellites assure the transmission of data and make up the skeleton of information technology; earth observation satellites provide services ranging from the weather to civil protection and monitoring territory; the Galileo navigation and positioning programme will lead to increased precision in localisation and development.

Thus far a non-military development

The strategic role space plays for Europe is not limited to the implementation of applied technology. It corresponds to a political vision of Europe in the world. The uses of space are the tools which allow information and its transmission across the planet to be controlled. Thus, this technology defines the tools which correspond to the action taken by the European Union, or some of its members, on the planet’s chessboard.

For example, negotiations between Europe and the United States on extremely technical issues concerning the Galileo programme have been opened. Debates surrounding the use of some frequencies to transmit a positioning signal have had a strong political significance. They define relations with the United States in a sector where, until now, the Americans have been the only ones able to implement and control the technology. Thus, Europe is increasing its political weight; the creation of these technological tools and their use is closely linked to European politics.

Until now, European space programmes have been developed following a non-military model. The ESA’s activities are exclusively civil, like the majority of national space programmes. In the margins, France has equipped itself with space systems applied to defence and other countries such as Italy, Spain, Germany and the UK have more modest projects, occasionally in development. The near-totality of non-military programmes has an obvious dimension in terms of security and defence. This is the case with Galileo whose precision abilities in localisation will provide security forces with important services. But it is also true of the GMES programme whose ground surveillance tools might affect coastguard ships, civil security or police forces.

In other respects, Europe’s security strategy, set out in the document ‘A Secure Europe in a Better World’, adopted at the European Council in Brussels on December 12th 2003, defines the fields of action for European security and calls for new capabilities. Space technology, such as for example earth observation applied to detecting weapons of mass destruction, can offer a series of technological instruments which are fundamental if European security is to be achieved.

The need for awareness

A new idea is called for: space is neither entirely civil nor entirely military. All space technology must be considered as of duel use and must contribute to improving security by producing services for different areas of public policy (monitoring territory, civil protection, aid to the third world, defence, air, sea and land navigation, and information technology).

Awareness of space’s strategic value is necessary for a European political project which means to promote security based on knowledge. Attention must be focused both on the preservation and development of technology, and the priority nature of space policy in Europe. A real ‘European space strategy’ on a level with Europe’s political ambitions needs to be defined.