Europe Needs More Space: The Old World Is Launching Satellites, for Both Commercial and Military Reasons. but the US Doesn't like It. (Space)

Article excerpt

What is the European Union trying to become? Should it aspire to be merely an economic superpower, or should it aim for a more credible common foreign and security policy? Should its aerospace industry depend on US technology; or should the Europeans nurture their own technological base? And is the EU'S ambition of being able to manage its own military operations realistic, unless it develops satellite networks that can operate independently of America's space assets?

All these questions are relevant to Europe's hesitant efforts to develop a space policy and a space industry. The French, in particular, argue that space is a "strategic" industry and Europe therefore needs a coherent space policy. After all, telecommunications is already almost completely dependent on space-based systems, while many other sectors, such as transport, will rely on the same technology to a much greater degree than before.

The European space industry, with its annual turnover of about 6bn euros (it employs 40,000 people), is dwarfed by the US, where the government space budget alone is $31bn. But unlike the US, where half the spending is military (indeed, the US accounts for 95 per cent of the world's military spending on space), Europe's future in space is heavily dependent on commercial success. For example, the Ariane series of launchers (the Ariane 5 rocket had its first successful launch in February) accounts for about half the global market in commercial satellites.

But the current focus of European effort is Galileo, a satellite navigation system costing more than 3bn euros. The aim of Galileo is to do a similar job to the American Global Positioning System (GPS), a network of satellites whose signals can be picked up by small devices that reveal to the user his or her exact location, whether driving a lorry, sitting on a boat or exploring a jungle.

GPS technology will soon dominate the management of transport flows in the air, on roads and on rail. The campaign in Afghanistan showed that it has military uses, too: many of America's "smart" bombs and cruise missiles were steered towards their targets by GPS signals, which, unlike laser-guided bombs, work when it is cloudy.

Indeed, the GPS, like the internet, started life as a military technology and, in the US, it is still controlled by the military. This is one reason why the Europeans want their own version of the GPS, rather than continuing to share the American system; they fear that, during some political or security crisis, the GPS could be turned off.

Despite doubts on the part of the UK, the Netherlands and Germany about the cost of the system (there were some particularly tough arguments in Britain, with the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence expressing reservations), Galileo got the go-ahead in March and is due to be operational by 2008. Its proponents say it will provide greater accuracy (location within four metres) than the GPS. As well as its transport and military applications, Galileo could be used to help environmental monitoring and meteorology

The former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, who takes a keen interest in space policy, argues that the most important reason for Europe to develop Galileo is to maintain its high-tech industrial base. If Europe lacks its own system, its companies will be unable to take the lead in developing many of the lucrative commercial applications of satellite positioning systems.

Denis Verret, a senior French industrialist at EADS, the Franco-German defence company, makes an analogy with Airbus and Boeing. Consumers are better served by the existence of two aircraft-makers than they would be by a Boeing monopoly. Similarly, he says, the existence of two rival positioning systems should be good for competition and consumers.

Moreover, an independent PricewaterhouseCoopers study, conducted for the European Commission, estimates that the Galileo system operators will receive revenue for the use of the system to the tune of 5l5m euros a year by 2020. …