Skip to main content
Article

France Cedes Leading Role in Space to Europe

When Libyan forces invaded northern Chad in 1979, the US government pressured France to launch a military strike to drive them back. When fighting intensified in 1983, US pressure on France also intensified. US Ambassador to France Vernon Walters traveled to Latché, François Miterrand’s personal countryside hideaway, to attempt to convince him.

His intelligence officers presented the French military, press, and civilian authorities with space imagery showing threatening Libyan military installations in the north of Chad. Their goal was to convince France that it must intervene. But several military officers have since declared that those images were not up to date, that they had been taken several years earlier at a time when Libyan forces had a greater presence in the area. Whether the assertions are true or false remains unclear. Given that the French air force conducted routine reconnaissance missions over the area, such a ruse by the United States might easily have been caught. But it did lead Prime Minister Laurent Fabius to create a high-level working group to assess the possibility of a French military space program.

In its 1986 report, this group identified space observation as one of the most effective means of gathering information. Because France intends to play an independent role in international affairs, and because timely information is crucial for any government to make informed policy choices, the report argued that France could not afford to rely on the information capacities of another country. The risk of being supplied false or low quality data was considered unacceptable. Indeed, the working group concluded that space observation was just as important for France’s strategic independence as was its nuclear force.

The government accepted this conclusion, and launched the Hélios military observation program. Developed in cooperation with Spain and Italy, Hélios 1-A was launched in 1996. Hélios 1-B was launched in December 1999. These reconnaissance satellites were the latest in a significant European program of space asset development begun in the 1960s. The Ariane launch vehicle, which made its first commercial flight in 1981, gives Europe independent access to space. Civilian space observation started with the Spot 1 satellite, launched in 1986 with Swedish and Belgian collaboration. Other projects of the European Space Agency (ESA) included scientific research, the creation of international standards for telecommunication satellites, and the Envisat radar satellite system that will be launched in the summer of 2001. Like Ariane, most of the biggest projects were first proposed by France, then pursued through cooperative agreements with European partners.

The End of an Era

But the age of French-led space policy in Europe is coming to an end. Many recent cooperative space projects proposed by the French have failed, especially on the military side. A Hélios 2 satellite was proposed as an enhanced version of its predecessor, Hélios 1, offering infrared imaging and faster data transmission. But after years of debate, Germany and Italy have refused to participate. Spain may still play a small role in the construction of the satellite, but this would cover a limited percentage of the total budget. The joint French-German Horus project to create a radar satellite intended to complement the Hélios system has also been shelved. And the Trimilsatcom, a military telecommunication system to be built by France, Germany and Britain, had to be cancelled after Britain withdrew.

These cooperative projects have failed for several reasons. First, France does not know how to make attractive offers to its would-be partners. Certainly the small roles offered to Spain and Italy in the Hélios 1 program gave them little interest in pursuing further joint space projects. Second, many of the other European countries do not share France’s interest in strategic independence. Building an independent military capacity implies a desire to play a correspondingly larger political and military role in the world, and most European states are simply not interested in this. Finally, discouraged by a series of canceled programs, France itself seems to be losing interest in military space initiatives. Hélios and Syracuse (the French-only version of the Trimilsatcom telecommunications system) are the only remaining major projects. Today’s tepid support is reflected in France’s military budget. In 1996, the military space budget (Plan pluriannuel spatial militaire) called for spending 3.3 billion francs per year for the next fifteen years. Yet actual appropriations have remained below 2.8 billion francs, and in 1999 dropped below 2.5 billion francs. Budget authorizations were particularly low for 2000, at less than 2.3 billion francs, and it appears that the 2.7 billion francs authorized for 2001 does not signal a reversal of the general trend towards lower spending on the military space budget. (See figure.)

The decline in cooperative projects signals the end of one phase in the history of European space—one in which France has been the central actor in motivating its partners to pursue large programs. But it is not the end of Europe’s military space initiative. Indeed, once in place, military space systems have proved useful for Europe. The experience of the war in Kosovo in the spring of 1999 proved the operational utility of the Hélios system. And for the first time ever, up to 17 percent of Hélios images were targeted under joint direction of the three operating countries: France, Italy and Spain.

This cooperative use of space resources is likely to increase. But the design and provision of military space resources in Europe is changing.

Consolidation of Europe’s Space Program

The future of Europe’s space policy will increasingly reside at the European level. One reason for this is that hardware for space programs is now being made by fully European companies. In the context of wider aeronautics and defense industry consolidation, European space manufacturers are also merging.

The European experience follows a trend towards military industry consolidation similar to that which occurred between 1992 and 1998 in the United States. Unlike US mergers, however, European consolidation has primarily occurred across national boundaries. And because the European market is small, consolidation has left only one first-tier or even second-tier producer in many product areas. In the area of space assets production, France’s Aerospatiale-Matra merged with Germany’s Dasa to create EADS. As a result, the only major satellite manufacturers in Europe today are Astrium, a subsidiary of EADS, and Alcatel Space. The only major industrial architect for launchers is EADS Launchers, also a subsidiary of EADS. This level of industrial concentration leaves little prospect for competition among the biggest companies.

The move to a European-level space policy has been reinforced by the shifting framework of European security policy. The 1999 Treaty of Amsterdam strengthened the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) of the European Union. The Cologne Summit of June 1999 required the transfer of certain military capacities of the Western Europe Union (WEU) to the European Union. The first transfer will be the WEU Satellite Interpretation Center located at Torrejon, Spain. Created in 1990, the WEU Satellite Center provides information to European countries based on the interpretation of satellite imagery. The Center buys imagery from different commercial providers, and under specific circumstances can borrow military-quality Hélios pictures. Until now, the team of photo-interpreters at the Center have responded to specific requests from member states, or submitted reports on their own initiative to the WEU Council. The scope of their mandate is wide, including issues related to security, the environment, disaster relief, or other humanitarian concerns.

The Torrejon Center, which for the moment supports the enlarged missions of the WEU, should by 2002 become an EU agency. In this function it will perform information missions for the Council of the European Union, and be controlled directly by the new Planning and Early Warning Unit led by the High Representative of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (currently Javier Solana). In May 2000, the WEU Assembly recommended that the Center work more closely with the Space Applications Institute (SAI), a unit of the Joint Research Center of the European Commission.

The SAI currently gives information to the head offices of the Commission in Brussels, especially on issues related to agricultural matters and ESDP. Satellite imagery might aid in each of these missions. But whatever its final affiliation, the growing security role of the European Union is creating a growing need for EU-controlled space assets.

Consolidation of space programs will not be limited to security goals. An official report issued in 2000, Towards a Space Agency for the European Union, proposed that the European Space Agency (ESA) be transformed into a new European Union Space Agency.

The European Space Agency has until now been an independent body with no formal link to the European Union. Over the next few years, however, the ESA will begin to follow decisions taken by the EU Council.

The change was decided formally during a November 2000 joint ESA and EU council. A joint ESA-EU working group has already started to meet beginning in March 2001. The next ESA Council meeting, a minister-level meeting to be held in November 2001, will assess these changes.

It appears that some major upcoming space programs are going to be developed within the new EU framework. The Global Monitoring for Environmental Security (GMES) program, for example, is expected to merge all existing European space observation programs. The details will be worked out later in 2001. But already at the French-Italian summit in Turin on 29 January 2001, both sides agreed to combine their Pléiades and Cosmo-Skymed observation satellite projects. Pléiades is the French successor to Spot 5; Cosmo-Skymed is a parallel Italian project. They agreed to launch four new radar satellites and 2 high-resolution imaging satellites between 2003 and 2006. This system would be incorporated into the EU-run GMES. Finally, the European Space Agency and the European Union are expected to fund jointly the first development phase of the Galiléo project, a self-standing European navigation system.

A New Space Policy under the European Union

The politics of Europe’s military space development is changing. Spain and Italy have acquired some of Europe’s most competitive technologies. Germany’s new Berlin Republic has gained greater political leadership in European affairs. Britain now appears willing to participate in a European common defense. For all of these reasons, European countries will no longer follow France’s lead in space programs management. This does not mean that Europe has become less interested in developing space projects—only that that member states and industries will demand greater responsibilities in future projects. To accommodate their interests, control of new space programs is being moved to the European Union.

This new nexus of space policy is likely to have an impact on the kinds of projects Europe undertakes. First, new projects will have to accommodate France’s enthusiasm for strategic independence with a reluctance by other EU member states to pursue this goal. The compromise will probably lie in the pursuit of dual-use space programs, such as Galiléo and GMES. Like the Ariane launcher before them, these systems will serve both civilian and military purposes. Second, the European Union will become the new negotiating partner for the United States in space projects. Dealing with this more powerful partner, the United States should be able to pursue bigger cooperative projects that promise greater returns for all. Thus, rather than disappearing, space issues and programs in the future will be at the center of Europe’s decision making process, with unprecedented political visibility.

Laurence Nardon is a Research Associate at the French Center on the United States, located in the French Institute for International Relations (IFRI) in Paris.

Get daily updates from Brookings