The militarization of space, temporarily on the back burner since the end of the Cold War, is once again being debated. In an increasingly contested environment, and at a time when military and civilian operations are increasingly dependent on space capabilities, world powers are arming themselves and signaling that Earth orbit could be the next battleground.
Western hegemony in space caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union is increasingly being questioned. In April 2021, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued an alert that China was developing several weapons capable of targeting satellites operated by the US and its allies. “Beijing strives to match or exceed US capabilities in space to achieve the military, economic and prestige advantages that Washington has accrued through space leadership,” the report said. “Counterspace operations will be an integral part of the PLA’s potential military campaigns [People’s Liberation Army, China’s military – ed. note]and China has anti-space weapons capabilities designed to target US and allied satellites.
In November 2021, the downing of an inactive Soviet satellite by Russia alarmed NASA and sent the crew of the International Space Station rushing to safety. “Russia, despite its claims to oppose the militarization of outer space, is prepared to jeopardize the long-term sustainability of outer space and jeopardize the exploration and use outer space by all nations by his reckless and irresponsible behavior,” the U.S. Secretary said. of State Antony Blinken reacted in a press release.
In this context, US President Donald Trump signed Space Policy Directive 4 in 2019, establishing a Space Force as the sixth branch of the US Armed Forces to counter the space capabilities of its “potential adversaries”.
But what about the European Union? If the nations of the old continent were to establish a joint space force in the near future, how would it fare against its competitors? AeroTime is investigating.
The European Union space program
Defined in 2018 for the period 2021-2027, the European Union’s space program thus specifies its three main missions: Earth observation, navigation and secure communication. To achieve this, the European Space Agency (ESA) and EU Member States rely on several components.
Launched in 1998, the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security programme, since renamed Copernicus, aimed to harmonize the collection and provision of environmental and security data to support European Union policies.
This system brings together a varied constellation of observation satellites from ESA and national space agencies, as well as Sentinel satellites launched on purpose. The first generation of Sentinel is composed of six different types of spacecraft with varied observation tools and missions. A second generation is being developed to complement the observation capabilities of what is already the largest Earth observation system in the world. More than 15 Sentinel satellites are expected to be launched during the 2020s.
The Sentinel-1B satellite (ESA – P. Carril)
Shortly after the launch of the United States’ Global Positioning System (GPS) in 1995, the European Union identified the need to deploy its own Global Navigation and Positioning Satellite System (GNSS) to achieve independence technological. In 1999, the European Commission approved the creation of a European GNSS named GALILEO, named after the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, discoverer of Jupiter’s satellites.
After GPS and Russian GLONASS, GALILEO became operational in 2016. To date, 28 Galileo-FOC satellites have been launched from the European spaceport of Kourou, French Guiana.
The GALILEO system offers a more precise, reliable and secure system than GPS, according to the European Space Agency. Among the services offered by GALILEO, the Public Regulated Service (PRS) offers government users a higher level of protection against interference such as jamming and identity theft. Thanks to encryption and a stronger signal, the PRS ensures continuity of service.
Another important navigation system is the European Geostationary Overlay Navigation Service (EGNOS) which offers improved geolocation and time accuracy over existing GNSS, using a network of ground stations and three geostationary satellites. This more precise service enables critical uses such as improving the safety of aircraft landings in extremely degraded visibility conditions.
To provide European governments with access to commercial satellite communication networks, the European Space Agency has been tasked with a new initiative called Governmental Satellite Communication (GOVSATCOM). From its launch in 2021 to 2025, the platform will be based on the pooling of available national satellites. The first phase will identify the needs of EU governments. If the need for additional capacity is identified during the implementation phase, more EU-owned satellites could be launched.
The communication system, which includes audio and video communication, will be made available to humanitarian aid responders during natural disasters or search and rescue operations in remote areas. It will also be used by the military with uses ranging from secure communication with operators in the field to controlling drones and their on-board sensors.
From identifying threats…
With the accelerating militarization of space, these critical infrastructures must be protected as soon as possible. In 2017, the French Ministry of the Armed Forces issued an official protest after a Russian satellite known as Olymp-K was seen tinkering with the Franco-Italian military communications satellite Athena-Fidus.
“What we classically understand by ‘defence’ is evolving to encompass more and more other areas, such as cyberspace and outer space,” said Josep Borrell, Vice-President of the European Commission, in a statement. blog post calling for more active space defense. Politics. “We must ensure our ability to safely and continuously operate the infrastructure essential to our societies, including against threats in outer space.”
To mitigate the risk of damage caused by accidental collision or even intentional interference, the European Union set up in 2014 a support framework for space surveillance and tracking of objects in orbit.
Ground sensors, ranging from telescopes to radars and laser ranging stations, and space sensors from seven EU Member States, namely France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Spain, have since been grouped under a Space Surveillance and Tracking (SST) Consortium, in cooperation with the EU Satellite Center (SatCen) agency.
The EU SST structure (Credit: SST Cooperation)
In 2021, EU SST sensors collected around 300,000 measurements per day. These measurements are used to provide three services: to predict potential collisions between spacecraft or with debris, to monitor fragmentations, disintegrations or collisions in orbit, and to give an assessment of the risks of uncontrolled reentry of spacecraft into the atmosphere. earthly.
With approximately 44 ground sensors currently active, the network is constantly expanding to provide the highest level of coverage possible.
“EU SST aims to have full coverage of GEO and MEO regions for objects larger than 35 centimeters by 2023,” the consortium explains. “For the LEO region, the EU SST aims to cover almost 100% of objects larger than 50 centimeters and around 20% of objects larger than 7 centimeters.
… to counter them
The concerns expressed by the United States find an echo across the Atlantic. In January 2019, two members of the French Parliament published a report in which they warned of emerging threats to French space assets.
“We must abandon all naivety: the militarization of space is already a fact, and those who today campaign for non-militarization treaties are sometimes the first to have militarized space”, commented then one deputies.
Six months later, before national July 14 celebrations, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the creation of a space command within the French air force, which was re-established as the Armée de air and space. In addition, a new operational center was built in Toulouse, bringing together its Military Satellite Observation Center (CMOS), and the Operational Center for Military Surveillance of Space Objects (COSMOS), unique in Europe, which permanently monitors more than 10 000 space objects in orbit. .
In March 2021, the French Space Command (CDE) organized the military exercise in space AsterX, the first of its kind in Europe. The objective was to understand the future needs of the CDE, assess the current capacity to protect space assets and monitor an increasingly contested territory.
In this exercise, the French Armed Forces were joined by the German Center for Space Situational Monitoring in Uedem, which monitors objects orbiting space using the GESTRA and TIRA radar systems.
In July 2021, Germany followed France’s lead and created the Bundeswehr Space Command, also based in Uedem. 80 soldiers from the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, monitor and protect current and future satellites used in the fields of telecommunications and observation.
Over the years, the two space commands have been joined by other space organizations, such as the Italian Space Operations Command. All actively participate in EU space program initiatives.
But their ambitions go beyond simple threat monitoring. On both sides of the Rhine, the US Space Force’s elusive Boeing X-37 space drone is making people envious. While its exact mission remains secret, the drone’s ability to navigate in low orbit and perform orbital maneuvers would make it a formidable asset for repairing allied satellites or countering enemy threats.
Shortly after its Space Command was established, the German Ministry of Defense awarded local start-up Polaris a €250,000 contract to study the application of its Aurora space plane for reconnaissance missions.
While the French authorities have not yet formalized a similar initiative, the CEO of Dassault Aviation Eric Trappier pleads for the development of a “space plane”. Over the past decade, the French company has studied several concepts for operating in low orbit, such as the Airborne Reusable Hypersonic Vehicle (VEHRA).
Italy is also active in the field. Following the success of ESA’s Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV), which performed a 100-minute suborbital spaceflight in February 2015, the Italian branch of Thales Alenia Space has taken the lead in a new project, Space Rider . The small space shuttle, capable of carrying microgravity experiments into space and bringing the results back to the surface of the Earth, should make its first flight in 2023.
ESA’s Intermediate Experimental Vehicle (IXV) (Credit: ESA/Manuel Pedoussaut)