European Space Ambitions

  • Petr Boháček
  • 21.12.2018 05:27

There is no need to rehash the long list of developments that have undermined European security in the last few years and led to the expansion of European integration into this sensitive area. What is, however, needed is a constant reevaluation of the direction the European foreign and security policy takes. This text does not aim to offer an exhausting dive into the many complex issues it touches on, but rather it hopes to connect them in a narrative pointing to the main obstacles in strengthening Transatlantic security – its asymmetrical nature, European weakness and fragmentation. This third part out of four will focus in line with future warfare trends, addressed in the previous part, on the growing dependency on space assets for defense and its impact on European and Transatlantic security.

In the space domain, the EU has been increasingly keener on security as well as autonomy. However, some inefficiencies within Europe and between NATO and the EU have already arisen. Further, the non-military nature of space threats and dual-use of space security assets require an approach which expands beyond the defense sector.

The 2016 Space Strategy under the guidance of Commissioner for Internal Market and Services Elżbieta Bieńkowska, whose Directorate-General has been one of the main drivers of the ongoing EU defense integration through the multi-billion-euro EDF, cemented security of the Union and strategic autonomy as two of its main objectives. Further, an initiative to provide EU members with secured government satellite communication (Govsatcom) is expected to be finalized with the European Space Agency and EDA in the 2020s. The data from the EU’s staple Galileo (global navigation system) and Copernicus (earth observation) systems are used to provide remote sensing for border control or high-resolution images and information from crisis zones or conflict areas and could be even included in missile guidance systems.[1] While Galileo does have an encrypted, secured and government-only format,[2] Copernicus data are expected to be secured in a similar way under the EU Govsatcom. Copernicus contributes to the most valuable of EU security space assets - the European Union Satellite Centre (EUSATCEN) that provides a 24/7 geospatial intelligence capability with space images and intelligence products using space assets for the European External Action Service and other intel and military units of the Union to support CDSP and CSFP (Common Foreign and Security Policy) goals.[3] Meanwhile, Copernicus’ defense value is reflected in its nearly €6bn budget allocation in the current MFF 2021-2027 to further enlarge its security functions.

The EUSATCEN uses Copernicus high-resolution images such this one of Colourful Naukluft, where the Sentinel-2A satellite takes us over to central western Namibia, an area surrounding the Namib Naukluft Park. Copyright European Space Agency.

The biggest ambition so far has been the European Commission proposal to develop its own European Union Agency for the Space Programme (EUASP) in June 2018. The initiative will move to a trialogue between the European Palriament, the Council and the Commission in January 2019. The Agency, which would succeed Prague’s European Global Navigation Satellite Systems Agency (GSA), is planned to enlarge its portfolio with tasks in the space sector linked to security and defense in support of the European Union Global Strategy and European Defence Action Plan.[4] Strategic autonomy, promotion of the EU’s global leading role, secure space-related data and enhancement of security of the Union are mentioned as key objectives of the program that is dominantly civilian and focused on helping the EU economy. Next to the Galileo and Copernicus programs, Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST), Govsatcom and space weather/near-earth objects programs and close cooperation with the EUSATCEN would be on its agenda.[5] The upcoming Multiannual Financial Framework for the first time allocates some €500 million specifically for space security. Albeit a rather minuscule number, as some MEPs and the EP transportation committee call for €700 million more,[6] it signals an increasing emphasis on the security of EU space assets. The 2016 EU Space Strategy also emphasizes Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST) as a key capability for development. Further, the proposed EU Agency for Space Program is expected to set up a network of national capabilities for monitoring and detecting near-earth objects, with the Commission being proposed as the coordinating body responsible for a response to such hazards.[7]

Prague's GSA HQ that is expected to become the EU Agency for Space Programme. Copyright: GSA, European GNSS Agency.

Yet, the growing EU space ambitions are shifting the traditional framing of European space activities from purely civilian to dual-use. The benefits of European space policy have been rationalized differently to different European stakeholders, whether it is the defense industry - emphasizing security - or private businesses - emphasizing data uptake and commercial use.[8] The European Parliament 2016 resolution clarified the use of civilian space capabilities of the EU as ensuring security and achieving CSDP goals.[9] As in the defense sector, the rising European ambitions are matched with questions of effective coordination in the Transatlantic sphere.

Coordinating Transatlantic Space Policy

The utility of space assets for defense and the growing space activity of the EU carry additional requirements for cooperation in this field. This is complemented by the interconnected nature of the space domain and the dual-use or civilian nature of such technologies. Resultingly, Transatlantic space efforts display several inefficiencies on the European and Transatlantic levels.

The first issue is the complex relationship between the EU and the European Space Agency (ESA), an independent inter-governmental body. With an increasing reliance on space capabilities for defense, any systematic dependence on Russian Soyuz launchers in the European Space Agency could become a security concern – technically from falling reliability of Russian space assets and geopolitically due to persisting tensions and Europe’s rising reliance on space for defense. This matches other ESA-EU issues, including lack of political accountability due to no formal links with the European Parliament or a complex inter-governmental financing model in contrast with the EU’s single 7-year MFF.[10] And while the EU space security focus is seemingly being answered by the ESA’s new Security and Safety program[11], the new ESA-EU cooperation framework that is to be negotiated is so far aiming to address only some of the above-mentioned issues.[12] 

Further, the inefficiency surrounding the use of the EUSATCEN, arguably the most space-empowered EU defense tool, is one of them. As a Council entity, it is constrained by its direct reliance on Member States’ funding that only amounts to some €26m per year[13]. However, the service is expected to provide critical tools for the execution of activities with strong MFF funding such as border protection (€33.9bn), EU defense capacities (€13bn) or peace facility missions (€10.5bn). The lack of cooperation with other intelligence fields (HUMINT, OSINT, SIGINT) and national intelligence bodies limits its effectiveness. Furthermore, it is linked to the lack of EU-NATO synergy in the space area. NATO has in the past declared satellite image intelligence as one of its needed capacities that was picked up by the Czech Republic, which established an appropriate Satellite Centre to provide NATO with imagery intelligence analysis.[14] However, its satellite images will be provided by a third-party commercial entity and managed by the Czech military intelligence, while several blocks from its Prague HQ the GSA (future EU Agency for Space Programs) is expected to manage and further develop EU-funded, owned and secured satellite constellations, which already feed a plethora of data to the EUSATCEN based in Spain.

The Ariane V rocket, with Galileo satellite onboard takes off from the European Spaceport in Kourou. Copyright European Commission.

The recently formed EU SST Consortium that comes out of an original Commission initiative of 2014 aims to provide a framework for ensuring safety on crowded and dangerous Earth orbits. However, within the EU SST, each country operates and controls its own sensors, including 33 sensors, radars, telescopes and laser-ranging stations.[15] Moreover, SST falls within the new EU space budget but it will remain managed by individual member states due to nations perceptions of space as a sensitive national security issue. A similar approach applies to NEO. All of this contributes to the lack of unity and fragmentation of EU and Transatlantic efforts. Among the EU ambitions in this field is the creation of its own catalog of space objects and the creation of autonomous SST capacities. Bleeding into the pure defense area, a recently proposed Italian PESCO project puts forward a network for SSA. However, the US possesses the main capabilities in SST which they provide in an open and free framework. Meanwhile, the EU hopes to have its own autonomy by monitoring objects up to 35 cm. There is no complete EU database and Europe depends on the US data of different quality and accessibility for 97% of the low earth orbit and 78% medium earth orbit/geosynchronous earth orbit.[16] Developing indigenous EU capacities in this field seems time-consuming and financially and industrially challenging to say the least.

Deepening the move towards autonomy, the 2016 Space Strategy calls for EU efforts to address the US Third Offset strategy and the large technological gap in the likes of the defense sector. Recent amendments and discussions in the European Parliament on the topic brought an emphasis to autonomous access to space to ensure the security and geopolitical independence of the Union and thus, its strategic autonomy. Proposals span from a guarantee of the use of EU-made launch vehicles and a Buy European Act to warrant purchases of European satellites, launchers and other systems.[17]


Division of roles, cooperation and effective interdependence not only on the Transatlantic but also on the global level are imperative to address these issues in the domain legally defined as a heritage of all humankind.


With the US SST or NEO sensors and data gathering being unmatchable, for Europe to duplicate them to become autonomous seems unfeasible in regard to budgets, capacity or time. Further, removal of space debris, planetary defense from NEOs, space weather or global tracking and management of all orbital objects cannot be done by a single entity in an area including all actors. Division of roles, cooperation and effective interdependence not only on the Transatlantic but also on the global level are imperative to address these issues in the domain legally defined as a heritage of all humankind. And as both the 2016 Strategy and the recent EC proposal for the 2021-2027 space budget including the establishing of the EUASP highlight the need for cooperation with the United States, Europe needs to bring something to the table to strengthen Transatlantic relations in this sector. This will need a functioning system on the continental level first. The starting discussion on NATO Space Policy could be an opportunity to start a new mutually interdependent and beneficial bond between Europe and North America, where the two work together to address space threats.


The next part of the series will be published next week.

This paper was prepared for the Association for International Affairs within the project „Future of the Czech security and defense policy and the role of NATO and the EU“, which is supported by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. The paper does not reflect the views of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. This publication is supported by NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division. The full version can be found here.

[1]              Pascal Legai, testimony of the director of EU SATCEN at the EP Security and Defense Subcommittee on 10.10.2018.

[2]              The Galileo Public Regulated Service (PRS) is restricted to government-authorised users.

[3]              Monitoring of Russian forces in Ukraine or in Syria, illegal migration or SLBM deployments in North Korea are among the main examples of the EUSC work whose products' use by EU MS has increased 24 times since its founding according to the testimony at the EP Security and Defense Subcommittee by Pascal Legai, the director of EU SATCEN, on 10.10.2018.

[4]              Legislative proposal of the EC to establish the space program of the Union for the period 2021-2027 and the European Union Agency for the Space Program, COM (2018)0447, 6.6.2018.

[5]              Ibid.

[6]              Massimiliano Salini, “Draft Opinion of the Committee on Transport and Tourism for a regulation of the EP and of the Council establishing the space programme of the Union and EU Agency for the Space programme,” EP, 2.8. 2018.

[7]              The Commission proposal clearly indicates that the EC “may coordinate” while recent amendments from the EP suggest the legally-binding verb “shall coordinate”.

[8]              Thomas Hoerber, “Framing in European Space Policy,” Space Policy 43, no. 22 (February 2018): 2.

[9]              European Parliament resolution on space capabilities for European security and defence, P8TA(2016)0267, 8.6. 2016.

[10]             ESA programs are decided every 2-3 years at ministerial meetings and are split between mandatory and voluntary with 95% of funds for the latter guaranteed to be spent in the contributing nation’s industry.

[11]             Resolution providing strategic guidelines for the preparation of Agency programs and activities, ESA 25.10.2018

[12]             Europe in Space: Roadmap towards a coordinated space policy for Europe; Joint Position Paper of the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union and the Spanish Presidency of the ESA Council at ministerial level. Madrid: 25.10.2018.

[13]             Numbers mentioned at the European Parliament Security and Defense Subcommittee meeting by Pascal Legai, the director of EU SATCEN, on 10.10.2018.

[14]             Jiri Kominek, “Czech MoD to launch IMINT centre,” IHS’s Janes, February 23, 2018.

[15]             Ibid.

[16]             Report from the Commission to the EP and the Council on the implementation of the Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST) support framework (2014-2017), COM/2018/256.

[17]             As proposed by Christelle LeChevalier and Angelo Ciocca of the Europe of Nations and Freedom Group in 2018/0236(COD).

About author: Petr Boháček


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