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French ambitions in space

Posted by Richard Wednesday, August 11, 2004

As well as sport, scientific research and much else that is included in the EU constitution, one last-minute addition was the inclusion of "space", at the insistence of President Chirac. The role of space in the process of European political integration has been rehearsed in a previous Blog, but there have been further developments which raise disturbing questions about the whole direction of European space policy.

One such development is on the Galileo front, which indicates that the US is not entirely unheeding of the potential threat from this rival global positioning system. According to Aviation Week, the US government is exploiting the fact that US manufacturers supply some of the vital components for the EU satellite system to prohibit the launch of test satellites on Chinese launchers.

The use of these launchers was chosen by the European Space Agency because of delays and problems in the Ariane 5 project, and the urgent need to get a test system up, using the frequencies allocation before February 2006. Unless this deadline is met by the EU, the International Telecommunications Union is free to reallocate the frequencies and, since there are no other suitable frequencies, the Galileo project could stall.

This has led France's Conseil Economique et Social, a government advisory body, to recommend steps to reinforce the European Union's involvement in space matters, and to increase and enhance the contributions of EU nations to the space effort. One recommendation is to name a EU commissioner for space. That move was made possible by insertion of "space" as an EU competence in the EU constitutional treaty.

Since France accounts for 40-45 percent of European space spending, it is unsurprising that Chirac sought its inclusion in the constitution as this is a means by which EU money can be used to support French industries and ambitions.

But the Conseil Economique et Social is going further, urging the merger of France's civil and military space hardware procurement agencies, which would lead eventually to a military dimension creeping into the European space programme. The immediate objective would be to ensure an independent capability to produce strategic space technologies including satellite and rocket gyroscopes, radiation hardened satellite electronic components and rocket fuel, all to prevent the US exercising any leverage over the programme.

The French government also urging its European partners to invest in a space-surveillance system, ostensibly to monitor a forthcoming UN treaty on the non-military use of space which, itself, is blurring the distinction between civilian and military applications. Along the same lines, its government is arguing that "security" and "counter-terrorism" does not breach ESA's prohibition on military involvement, albeit that the technology is identical.

This gives some further insight into the reason why the EU is so insistent on defining Galileo as a civilian project, as its constitution, as currently framed, forbids its involvement in military projects. If it acknowledged the military dimension, it could not participate in this flagship EU venture. Redefinition of "military" as "security" and the development of military-capable technology in support of UN objectives could neatly circumvent this problem.

All this, however, is camouflage. The real driver behind European space policy is the French fear of falling too far behind the US in the development of military-space capabilities. It cannot afford to compete with a programme twenty times larger than its own, so needs European money to stay in the game. "The French have always been concerned about preserving their strategic autonomy", one insider observed.