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At space conference, EU chiefs talk ‘strategic autonomy’ up high


BRUSSELS – On 24 January, high-level EU policymakers and private-sector bosses came together to discuss security and defence in space during the annual “European Space Policy” conference here. One panel in particular focused on dual-use applications and how Europe’s increasing presence in space will boost European security and economic growth.

Françoise Grossetête, French centre-right member of the European Parliament (MEP), opened the panel with a plea for European strategic autonomy in the face of Brexit, the election of US President Donald Trump and regional instability near Europe’s borders. Mostly, she spoke about money, and more importantly, how to direct it towards building Europe’s industrial base.

“Our funding plan should develop pilot projects and industrial capacity,” she said, while avoiding specifics about how these plans would relate to space.

Up next was Tomasz Husak, head of cabinet at DG-GROW, the European Commission’s internal market policy department. Referring to Galileo, the EU-funded global navigation satellite system (GNSS) and its 22 satellites in orbit, he said the launch later this year of four more satellites will achieve Galileo’s initial operating network of 24 satellites plus two spares. “It’s the most precise signal [among such systems],” he said. “Your position is that of a room – not of a house.”

Galileo is also encrypted, while remaining compatible with both the US-provided GPS system and Russia’s GLONASS system. “Nobody today has such a secure signal that it also so precise,” he said.

Galileo’s true value, Husak said, lies in both its dual-use applications and its provision of European autonomy in space. As an example, he noted that Galileo “will allow secure communication between satellites to steer drones. That’s a big issue in coming months.” More important, however, is what Galileo offers for strategic and autonomous access to space, particularly through European launchers. “This is about having a pure European capacity” for space access, he said.

The notion of European industrial independence in the sector – i.e., moving beyond reliance on the US space sector – to achieve completely autonomous space program was an ongoing trend throughout the conference, in fact.

Jerzy Buzek, Polish MEP and chair of the EP’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, outlined what the EU must now do.

First, he said Europe needs to build on the success of Galileo by using the system to boost cyber-security (presumably through the system’s encrypted communications) and to monitor carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

Second, the EU must “kick start” its so-called Government Satellite Communications (GovSatCom) initiative to ensure that national authorities – and in particular, their militaries – have secure communications wherever they operate. Doing so, Buzek said, will “strengthen European autonomy, and strengthen European member states who do not have their own SatCom systems.”

Third, Buzek said “we need to get serious about space, surveillance, and tracking,” which is linked to his fourth objective: an additional 120 million EUR in the EU’s next seven-year (2021-2027) general budget for space research. The current budget allocated 5.6 billion euros to space research, meaning his proposal would represent an increase of around 4 percent.

Finally, Buzek noted that the Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency “is seriously understaffed. The Commission must ensure that 2019 budget contains the right number of posts and financial support for the GNSS.”

     THE UPSHOT: For all the hot air in this conference – one speaker waxed eloquent about humanity’s duty to colonise other planets – it is clear that Galileo could well be a game changer for European security. Its dual-use applications are enormous, from helping military targeting systems to coordinating disaster response, as well as boosting commercial applications of all kinds. It helps that the system is encrypted and stronger than most other global navigation satellite systems, although the coming Chinese system is said to be just as locationally accurate.
     Europe’s investment in Galileo will pay dual-use dividends for decades. Here’s hoping it can serve as an example for other programmes on a European scale.


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