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Space and European Security

Long a taboo subject, European Union leaders now want to foster the growth of a Europe-wide defense industry. If Brussels succeeds in consolidating the sector, it could be a major boon for the space program.

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The Eurofighter Typhoon relies on space technology to target its weapons

Part three of a three-part special report.

Before the end of the Cold War, it would have been political heresy for Europe to pursue a space strategy with a major security element. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall came new security challenges – like organized crime, mass migration, destruction of habitats and terrorism -- that could only be addressed with space-based intelligence.

A report on space security policy published in October by Rome's Institute for Foreign Affairs concluded that space-based Earth observation tools are also necessary for the European Union to fulfil the so-called "Petersberg" tasks -- the basic military duties including peacekeeping and crisis management laid out in the Treaty of the European Union. They would also be required for the operation of a rapid reaction force, the EU's proposed 60,000 strong contingent of troops that could respond quickly to global security crises.

ESA: Galileo

The Galileo satellite constellation will help cars navigate crowded highways, but it will also provide precise tracking for European soldiers.

Those new challenges are also prompting new ways of thinking about space in Europe. "The distinction between defense-related and civil space systems makes little sense today," European Space Agency Director Jean-Jacques Dordain said. "The same satellites, the same systems can be used for both. In the U.S., defense is the main driving force behind the development of space systems that offer important civil benefits." In Europe, he said, the opposite is happening -- civil institutions are funding projects that will play a major role in security and defense.

Shifting priorities

Some forward looking space policy experts are calling on the EU to centralize policy-making and the creation of demand in Brussels -- not only for civilian space applications, but also for the defense side. That's already starting to happen, though at a snail's pace.

"Europe is now moving towards its own security research program," European Commissioner for Research Phillipe Busquin recently said. "The fact is that Europe has long been handicapped in this area due to the fact that security has been a 'no-go' area for us."

ESA's charter expresses that its work must be for "peaceful purposes," which kept it out of the defense debate for decades. However, its charter has recently been interpreted by an expert panel at Rome's Institute for Foreign Affairs to mean that it can develop and launch "non-aggressive" security-related systems if it is asked to do so by "national or international bodies in charge of security."

In the past, Europe has had less incentive to actively pursue that avenue, but the staggering prices of defense technologies are making greater cooperation a more attractive option for member states.

The 25 EU member states spent about €180 billion a year on defense, a distant second to the estimated €330 billion spent by the United States. With a few high-profile examples, like the Airbus A400M military transport plane, there has been little cooperation in research, development and procurement. Some estimates suggest national governments could save €5 billion each year, become more internationally competitive and, by spurring demand for security or defense-related projects, create jobs by increasing Europe's joint purchasing power.

A recent report on space policy by the European Commission and the European Parliament warned: "Europe's limited commitment to defense-related space activities leads to technological deficiencies due to insufficient investments in some areas."

NEXT PAGE: A European armaments agency

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