Europe struggles to keep up with global arms race in space

European Union officials are certainly ambitious, even against long odds.

The EU has still not created its joint army, despite decades of talking about the subject. It may also face a blow to the continent's economy if, as now seems probable, Britain leaves the EU later this year with no trade arrangements in place.

Still, that has not prevented some of the EU's senior officials from daydreaming. One has gone as far as to call for the creation of a "European Space Force" to rival those being created by global powers such as the United States, China and Russia.

Yet, as is often the case in Europe, the reality is less exciting. The continent is struggling to boost its military presence in space. But these efforts are taking place at the national level rather than that of the EU, and are confined to only a couple of nations. Do not expect to encounter Battlestar Europe any time soon.

Major countries around the world have invested in military space capabilities for decades. Every single space exploration or communication satellite project that was presented as a civilian endeavour had its military dual-use potential. And discussions about preventing an arms race in space have also been touted for a long time, to no avail.

But the topic received an impetus last year when US President Donald Trump announced his intention to create an American Space Force as a separate military service in the US; led by a full, four-star general with the task of creating a US space war-fighting doctrine, as well as tactics, techniques and procedures.

Mr Trump's proposal got stuck in the US Congress, which must approve the creation of a brand new armed service. Democratic opponents, in particular, are suspicious of a plan that appears to be Mr Trump's creation.

Still, Washington is proceeding with the expansion of a special space organisation and command within the US Department of the Air Force. It will be "smaller and more focused" than Mr Trump's proposal, Mr Adam Smith, the US House of Representatives' Armed Services Committee chairman, noted.

And the Europeans are proceeding along similar lines. Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron approved the creation of a space command within the French Air Force to improve the country's defence capabilities.

"To assure the development and the reinforcement of our capacities in space, a high command for space will be created in September," Mr Macron told his top military commanders, calling the military focus on space a "true national security issue".

And in Britain, the government announced extra funding for space operations. Predictably, the British decided to join the US in developing a new generation of small satellites. Britain is also the first nation to join Operation Olympic Defender, a US-led initiative to strengthen deterrence against hostile actors.

Not to be outdone, the EU wants to add to the mix. "What is becoming a reality at the national level probably should also become a reality at the EU level. We need to discuss, in the medium to long term, a European Space Force," said Polish-born European Commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska, who is in charge of internal market, industry and entrepreneurship. Her portfolio also includes space.

Her statement raised expectations but was nothing more than grandstanding. It subsequently emerged that the European Defence Agency, a body created to coordinate joint defence technology projects in the EU, had neither been informed of nor consulted on this initiative.

"To my knowledge, no member state has so far put forward the (space) idea and the agency is not working on it," said Mr Jorge Domecq, chief executive of the agency.

In fact, instead of integrating national space efforts, the trend in Europe is towards fragmentation in this sector. The EU does fund a major space programme: the Galileo project. When completed, probably by 2026, it will comprise 24 satellites, providing highly accurate navigational positioning and offering an encrypted signal - known as the public regulated service - which could be used for military purposes by EU member states.

But, in one of the first moves that took place after Britain voted to leave the EU, the bloc effectively forced the British out of the project by insisting that Britain will not continue to have easy access to Galileo's secret infrastructure.

The Brits abandoned their £1.2 billion (S$2 billion) investment in Galileo, and are now turning to the Americans and their own national resources to build a rival system. Meanwhile, Germany - Europe's biggest and wealthiest country - is doing little in space altogether.

So, Europe is tiptoeing into the developing space arms race according to a familiar formula: With the French trying to do their own thing, the Brits following the Americans, the Germans pretending not to notice the entire affair and the EU dreaming of coordinating a Europe-wide military capability which does not exist.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2019, with the headline 'Europe struggles to keep up with global arms race in space'. Print Edition | Subscribe