“Sovereign access to space is more strategic than ever for Europe”
China performing more orbital launches a year than the United States for the first time in 2018, it may well land the title as the world’s leading space power. This is unthinkable for the United States.
Having closely studied this issue, LREM (En Marche) representative and famous mathematician, Cédric Villani, says that “this is not just a scientific and technological issue, it is also a highly political one, involving national sovereignty and the leverage that such scientific and technological research has on the economy”. This says it all. It is up to Europe and France to decide the relevant areas on which to focus their efforts. Alongside the not insignificant commercial and technological issues, the notion of sovereignty is still key. Europe has truly woken up in recent years, launching the Galileo satellite radio navigation programme that will free Europeans from the shackles of America’s GPS system and give them independence from the United States. Galileo helps make Europe a safer, more secure place and projects a stronger Europe onto the world stage. “Sovereign access to space comes at a cost, one that must be shared more equally among Europeans”, explains Defence Minister, Florence Parly, in her response to the Court of Auditors’ report on Europe’s space launcher policy. Europeans need a powerful Europe to preserve their expertise, jobs and independence. This comes at a price, particularly in the space sector. As pragmatic as ever, the United States understood this a long time ago and has built up a considerable competitive advantage in the field. Commanding the highest civil space budget in the world (NASA with $19.5 billion in 2018 versus the European Space Agency’s $5.6 billion), it provides its launchers with a captive market sustained through public procurement. This enables US operators like SpaceX to offer very low prices on the commercial market and inflict serious damage to its competitors, particularly in Europe. “SpaceX’s success is down to overwhelming financial support from the US Government through public procurement, and its successful industrial and technological choices”, explains the Court of Auditors in its report on space launcher policy. In 1974, since France and Europe had no space launchers, they had to ask the United States to put Symphonie, the old continent’s first telecoms satellite, into orbit. Washington accepted on one condition: the satellite could not be for used for commercial purposes. Europe then realised that a launcher was a sovereign vehicle because, without one, it would be at the mercy of countries that controlled access to space. Such a strategic interest was particularly important to France, with close synergies between its civil space sector and nuclear deterrent activities. Ariane launch vehicles and ballistic missiles are made in the same design offices and production plants.
“If we abandon our launchers, we will find ourselves in an unbearable situation of dependency across Europe: what will stop our Chinese, Russian and American friends from concocting exorbitant prices, ultimately sabotaging all of our industry in this field?”, Cédric Villani asks. Both institutional and commercial satellites are launched. Institutional satellites are not usually open to competition because of the technical interfaces between launchers and satellites. A sovereign launcher is essential to protect against the risk of a foreign power, commissioned to carry out a launch, restricting the use of a satellite or intercepting its data. This is why, in spite of some technological gaps with interim launcher Ariane 6, Europe must have sovereign access to space to launch its institutional satellites. The “Buy European Act” is also a strategy akin to that of the United States, and yet we see that this year and next, SpaceX is set to launch the three SARah reconnaissance satellites used by the German Army...
THE COURT OF AUDITORS