A European Approach to Space Security

The Changing Space Landscape

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Xavier Pasco
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

For more than thirty years, civilian and military space programs were developed mainly by the United States and the Soviet Union in the context of their respective political and strategic projects and policies. At a time when ballistic nuclear arsenals were under development, the two nations wanted to watch the construction of these weapons from afar (observation), to detect and announce their use by the enemy (early warning), and to find storage and preparation sites so that missiles could be counted for arms control purposes (verification). Neither country wanted a space arms race or a nuclear war in space, so they engaged in some legal regulation, highlighted most prominently by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Although both countries experimented with anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, neither deployed a significant ASAT capability or any space-to-Earth weapons. Early uses of space for military support activities were clearly defined and designed to stabilize deterrence because carefully monitoring each other’s deadly missile arsenal was required. This priority gave related space applications a highly “strategic” value and explains why they have been largely supported in the two countries for more than forty-five years, through numerous governments and changing national and international priorities.

Intelligence assets in space are less vulnerable to attacks or countermeasures than surveillance aircraft or other common technologies. In the 1980s, France judged this relative safety sufficient to justify building its own space-based intelligence capabilities, albeit on a much more modest scale than that undertaken by the two superpowers. The French military’s limited reliance on these modest space capabilities (the program is essentially political in nature), as well as the principle that space can be used freely for peaceful purposes, as stated in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, meant that France’s efforts encountered little domestic opposition. From a political standpoint, France’s ability to show independence in this area is similar to its decision to create its own deterrence force. The construction of independent launch vehicles (ultimately, the Ariane family of space launchers) was viewed as a complementary and necessary guarantee of this independence.2 In this respect, the French military observation satellites (the Helios series) have primarily been considered a strategic and political tool instead of a tactical system.

Since the end of the Cold War, the “threat” to the West is no longer a massive attack by a nuclear-equipped Soviet Union, and the targets are no longer just missile silos. Instead, countries must be prepared to address a wide variety of security problems that might arise with almost no warning and in a much less predictable way than before. Adaptive and flexible reaction capabilities, including at the lower end of the combat operation spectrum (that is, the so-called Petersberg tasks: peacemaking, peacekeeping, humanitarian operations), require much more versatile and relevant intelligence and information capabilities. Addressing the new security challenges requires complete and “intelligent” information, which shifts the focus of today’s space technologies toward an investment in data processing and information technology.

The United States and Europe agree on the importance of developing new space-based information systems to help manage these new security challenges, but they differ both in terms of the types of space assets that they would like to develop and the amount of resources that they plan to invest in new capabilities. Whereas the U.S. military is dramatically increasing its reliance on space, European spacefaring countries still want to keep their military space investments to a minimum, reflecting both limited resources and political and military restraints.

Under the “battlefield awareness” concept used by U.S. strategists, more and more information from space will be transmitted directly to soldiers, who will be equipped in the field with sophisticated and efficient personal communications devices. The strategic bet is that better knowledge brought by value-added information3 and an increased ability to apply precision military force from a great distance will compensate for the difficulties of engaging forces in a poorly defined environment.4 Increasingly, space is viewed as a “strategic enabler,”5 its status evolving from that of a base for sophisticated armament programs used for specialized tasks to that of the nerve center for all military operations. For example, the troops sent to Afghanistan in 2002 used seven times more satellite communications bandwidth than the allied forces used during the first Gulf War. One year later, this ratio amounted to ten times more bandwidth for Operation Enduring Freedom.6 As one high-ranking U.S. military officer put it, the United States has made a major strategic choice: space-based information and communications systems are now integral to military operations; they are not “a fringe operation supporting purely strategic or national objectives.”7 Additionally, the strategic nature of the information provided by space-based systems corresponds to obvious political needs and would tend to increase mutual political understanding and trust in a coalition context.

A lack of clear vision for Europe’s military space presence has plagued most transatlantic attempts at cooperation in the military space field. For example, although the need to make military space telecommunications assets interoperable became clear on both sides of the Atlantic during the 1990s, the various parties could not agree on a common architecture because of different strategic, military, and political doctrines and views. Sharing early-warning capabilities or even military intelligence space assets would require a framework agreement based on convergent strategic and political views. The need for high-level political agreement can easily transform any technical discussion or concept into a highly contentious issue, as such exchanges may directly impact European security and defense policy — that is, they may become an intergovernmental issue requiring adherence to EU rules.8 Because of its undecided military and security situation, Europe will not be able to cope with such highly strategic military discussions as a united entity for some years, especially because these discussions have traditionally been conducted under the NATO umbrella in a multilateral manner.

Performance and capacity improvements will also require increasing integration of military space applications with their civilian counterparts. The greater versatility of data-collection systems implies the use of increasingly high-performing and flexible civilian sensors for various missions, such as high-resolution imagery and multispectral capabilities for a range of needs, including agriculture, fishing, and general environmental observation. In the telecommunications field, several projects involving civilian low-Earth orbit (LEO) wideband satellites for mobile or multimedia users perfectly fit the military telecommunications architectures.9

Europe does have extensive experience with multiuse satellite systems through its long-standing scientific and experimental programs. In particular, a large number of scientific satellites or probes have been launched by the European Space Agency (ESA). Traditionally, other applied programs, such as Earth-observation satellites, have been launched by European nations themselves. Competencies are well established in countries such as France (for optical satellites), as well as Germany and Italy (for radar techniques). These national investments have directly benefited European science-oriented Earth-observation programs and are possibly useful for security purposes. One of the most important space developments was undertaken by Europe in 2002 with the satellite Envisat, which is equipped with multispectral sensors10 and other new technical payloads for studying atmospheric composition. This makes it an efficient space laboratory for a large array of customers dealing with new security issues. A number of other experimental projects undertaken in the scientific program of ESA also demonstrate the excellence of European know how.11

These trends are creating new tensions in space. The expected multiplication of space actors and operators, in both the state and private sector, demands a collective reflection on a new set of rules that will guarantee an equitable development of space activities consistent with the notion of the common good.

So far, though, the increasing desire by new actors to use space for civilian and military purposes has resulted in defensive military postures from existing space powers, which have tended to focus on the new dangers that would result from these developments. In particular, the United States has promulgated a new military space doctrine that promotes the right to develop ASAT weapons in order to protect its space assets, defend against any space-based attack, and deny other countries the ability to use space to enhance their own military power.

Over the last few years, this space-control doctrine stirred up debate in international forums such as the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva and the UN Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS). These debates remain centered on the few countries — namely, the United States, China, and Russia — that have tended to disagree on the legal latitude existing treaties afford to the deployment of orbital weapons. Although tested by the USSR and the United States during the 1970s and 1980s, “space-denying” projects were not at the top of the list of diplomatic tensions until recently. During the Cold War, the need to keep space a generally, even if implicitly, protected and neutral medium in the context of the nuclear balance was a solid-enough motivation to regulate the strategic space relationship. However, renewed U.S.-Russian tensions since the end of the 1990s show that this period has come to an end. Tensions have been heightened further by China’s demonstration of its anti-satellite capability on January 11, 2007 (an event that counts as one of the most space-polluting in recent history), and by the U.S. Department of Defense’s destruction (in a somewhat cleaner manner) of the failing USA 193 satellite slightly more than one year later.

Europe has not been part of the discussions surrounding security issues in space. Without a military space program comparable to that of the United States or Russia, European countries, individually or collectively, cannot approach the issue from an exclusively military angle. For a long time, Europe has restricted itself to purely civilian programs of a scientific character. The institutional arm of the European space program, ESA, was by mandate devoted to peaceful scientific activities. Only recently has Europe become more sensitive to debates about the military and strategic uses of space, and space applications are increasingly mentioned as a necessary step for enhancing European security,12 whether in the military sense or as a way to increase the safety of populations confronted with natural disasters or catastrophes. Nonetheless, the notion of “dual-use programs” (those covering civilian and military needs) does not — indeed, cannot — represent a European policy per se, despite often being referred to in the case of the EU’s so-called flagship programs, Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) and Galileo (Europe’s satellite navigation program). The remaining differences among EU member states over the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the associated European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) complicate the discussions and make notions such as “security” and “dual-use technology” highly politicized issues. The debates over the military uses of Galileo are sufficient to convince one of these political difficulties. However, holding the debate shows that member states’ views can at least be discussed, which in turn allows Galileo and other space programs slowly to gain a higher status in a broader European policy context that values security.

2. The controversy over conditions the United States placed on France’s 1973 launch of two European telecommunication satellites, Symphony I and Symphony II, was at least symbolically at the root of this decision.

3. Implied by the frequently used expression “transparent battlefield.”

4. See, for example, Colonel Robert C. Owens, “Aerospace Power and Land Power in Peace Operations, Towards a New Synergy,” Airpower Journal (Fall 1999): 4–22.

5. Ibid.

6. See Joe Leland and Isaac Porche III, Future Army Bandwidth Needs and Capabilities, RAND Monograph, RAND Arroyo Center, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, California, 2004, 10. See also, William B. Scott, “Milspace Comes of Age in Fighting Terror,” Aviation Week & Space Technology 156 (14): 77.

7. Donald G. Cook “Congreve’s Red Glare . . . Reflections of the Past, Visions of the Future,” RUSI Journal 144 (5) (1999): 38. Lieutenant General Cook is the vice commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command.

8. The so-called Revolution in Military Affairs, the Joint Vision 2010 and 2020 (often presented on the U.S. side as potential repositories for better interoperable architectures), and even the current U.S. Department of Defense transformation concept have continuously been the subject of internal debates in Europe, to assess their relevance as federative strategic and military concepts for the European case. These discussions have not prevented the pursuit of some military cooperative work — as demonstrated, for example, by the ongoing Multinational Interoperability Council (MIC). As of today, the MIC effort is partnering with Australia, Canada, Germany, France, and Great Britain.

9. Although the commercial demand for such systems has been less than expected, the military has decided to purchase Motorola’s system of sixty-six satellites, Iridium, which is now mainly devoted to military communications.

10. For example, the Envisat payload MERIS has fifteen spectral channel sensitivity, which makes the satellite well adapted to the detection or characterization of a wide range of natural and human phenomena.

11. A number of scientific space experiments either in orbit or in the planning stages have been undertaken within the framework of the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) program using new sensing techniques, such as Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR), designed to help better characterize the atmospheric environment and its dynamics.

12. Such as in the case of the Galileo global navigation satellite system and GMES, two widely supported pilot programs for Europe.