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Mixed Reviews on EU Plan to Use Commercial Space Assets for Military

August 3, 2016 (Photo Credit: ESA–Manuel Pedoussaut)

They are EU-funded space projects supposedly designed for observing the earth and environmental monitoring. But, according to a top scientist, Europe’s commercial and civilian space assets will increasingly be utilized for military.

Professor Anne Glover, the EU’s former chief scientific adviser, believes that European flagship space systems, such as the Galileo navigation and Copernicus Earth observation programs, are vital intelligence resources that will be used in planning and carrying out military missions.

"There is no Earth-observation project as big as Copernicus," said Glover, who served in the EU role from 2012-14 and now is vice principal of external affairs and dean for Europe at the University of Aberdeen. "It’s already abundantly clear that the system will also be used for military operations and surveillance purposes.”

Glover’s comments come after reports emerged that the European Commission's first-ever space policy, currently in draft form but to be finalized this fall, proposes more civil-military synergies in European space systems.

A six-page draft of the new policy says that while the Galileo and Copernicus programs are essentially civil/commercial in nature, both have the potential for military use.

“Increased synergies between civilian and security activities could reduce costs and improve efficiency,” says the document, due to be formally published in November.

The EU is the owner of the Galileo and Copernicus systems and the draft was drawn up by DG GROW, the European Commission directorate-general responsible for most EU space programs.

Just how far EU member states will allow expansion into other areas, such as military satellite communications, military-grade Earth observation and space surveillance, remains uncertain.There's are also cost implications and Europe's continued dependence on the United States for an average of 60 percent of the payload electronics on board European satellites.

The Copernicus project, which aims to give the EU an extensive view of the Earth’s surface and is just one of several EU-funded satellite projects, will still be used for environmental monitoring.

But, in assembling this constellation of satellites, the EU is clearly extending its military power and diminishing its reliance on the US for accurate satellite data.

Further comment comes from EU Commissioner Elżbieta Bieńkowska, the official responsible for the internal market and industry, who says, “Copernicus is already a success story and the first services are fully operational. We must build on this. Copernicus will generate a massive amount of data and information and we must keep building our capacity to handle its data.”

But a future space policy that comprises more military involvement is not welcomed by all.

“It’s already abundantly clear that the new system – Copernicus – will also be used for military operations and surveillance purposes, some of which are highly controversial,” said Ben Hayes of the civil liberties group Statewatch.

Pauline Massart, deputy director of security and global Europe at Friends of Europe, a leading Brussels-based think tank, sees the positives in such developments and is urging the European Commission to specifically “look more closely” at how space capabilities, in particular the Copernicus program, can help in current counter-terrorism efforts.

She points out that the  EU's new draft space strategy proposes enhanced cooperation between the European Defence Agency, an EU agency, and the EU’s Satellite Centre, based in Madrid.

Massart adds, “While the draft of the new space policy remains a bit vague at present, it does make sense to look at dual use of space capabilities, if not an outright military one. We cannot afford not to.”

The Copernicus system’s declared military uses include “EU peacekeeping operations” – that is, European military missions – as well as “border monitoring outside the EU” and resource monitoring.

Until 2013, Copernicus had been funded to the tune of €2.4 billion, or $2.68 billion, with 30 percent supplied by EU and the remainder by the European Space Agency. Between 2014 and 2020, the Commission will be covering one-third of total costs for Copernicus space infrastructures, which is almost €3.3 billion ($3.69 billion), while funds from ESA will be around €1.7 billion ($1.9 billion).

Some studies showed that Copernicus may create around 50,000 new jobs in Europe by 2030 as well as boost economic benefits by €30 million or $33.5 million.

“The EDA has gathered the satellite communication needs for European military actors involved in the conduct of common security and defence policy operations as well as for national military use,” said Eric Platteau, spokesman at the Brussels-based European Defence Agency. “In parallel, the European Commission is currently performing a similar exercise for the civil sector.”

The focus now is in preparing the next generation of Governmental Satellite Communications.

“The aim of the GovSatcom initiative is to provide member states and European actors with appropriate capabilities through an innovative and sustainable cooperation model,” Platteau added. “It further signals a new partnership not only between military and civil institutional actors, but also with industry.”

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