The independent resource on global security

11. The security dimension of European collective efforts in space



I. Introduction

II. The emerging security dimension in EU space policy

III. European organizations

IV. Major national programmes

V. Conclusions


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Europe, both collectively and nationally, has long been a major power in outer space, with countries maintaining an array of facilities for satellite launches, satellite production and research. Like many other elements of European power, space capability is not a fully unified project, but rather arises through the accumulation of a confused mixture of national and multinational entities and efforts. The major national players in space are the four European states with the largest economies: France, Germany, Italy and the UK. At the collective level, there are two principal organizations: the 25 nation EU and the 17 nation European Space Agency (ESA). In addition, other joint European projects involve sets and subsets of national governments and multinational organizations.


While European space activities have focused on civil and commercial applications, over the past several years European states and Europe collectively have recognized the need to add a security dimension to their space programmes. This has been a slow and halting process. Even today, European states jealously guard their military space capabilities; they are often wary of inter-European cooperation and more so of collective endeavours. That mindset is beginning to change, however, spurred in large part by the revolution in military space power in the USA, where the increased exploitation of space assets for both tactical and strategic purposes has provided an undisputed edge on the battlefield. In particular, several European nations—individually, bilaterally or multilaterally—are for the first time pursuing programmes for earth imaging and communications satellites dedicated to military use.


The pressures for more cooperation in military space activities also stem from the trend towards collectivism in foreign affairs and defence policy that began with the articulation of the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), and its European Defence and Security Policy (ESDP). Since the 1990s, European militaries cooperate ever more closely on the ground, on the seas and in the air. The European Commission has pledged €3.96 billion to be spent on security and space in the period 2007–13.


A second, but no less important driver has been Europe’s desire to build capabilities that are independent of the USA—a trend that has its roots in the end of the cold war but which has accelerated in recent years as European views about US unilateralism have hardened and US restrictions on space technology transfer have tightened. While European states have a growing desire for information from sources other than the USA, no European country could itself hope to finance a space programme that could deliver such information. The EU is therefore increasingly becoming a locus for new space efforts, such as the massive and complex Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) programme.


At the same time, there remain a number of constraints—from political to economic—on the development of European military space power. Space, while important for modern warfare, is not at the top of the list of EU capability priorities, which is dominated by more immediate needs such as airlift, sealift and transport helicopters. Military leaders, even in Europe’s leading space power, France, continue to balk at paying for expensive, dedicated satellite-based capabilities, including the navigation, positioning and timing services to be provided by Europe’s flagship Galileo programme.


However, the more the EU becomes the tool of choice for the security and military operations of its members, and the more it seeks to profile itself as a global actor, the further it will be driven towards the use of space for security and military purposes. If the trend continues, the EU will most probably progress from operating dual-use assets and distributing data from national networks to deploying collectively owned technology for the exploitation of space for security purposes. 


Theresa Hitchens (USA) is Director of the Center for Defense Information (CDI) and leader of CDI’s Space Security Project.


Tomas Valasek (Slovakia) is the Director of the Brussels office of the Center for Defense Information (CDI).