Europe joins forces in space and defence

It has been more than a decade since three wise men appointed by the European Space Agency (ESA) first met to discuss the evolution and enlargement of the organisation which coordinates the space activities of most EU member states and a few others besides. Among the topics discussed by Carl Bildt, Lothar Späth and Jean Peyrelevade was a revision to ESA’s constitution that would allow cooperation with the European defence sector in areas of common concern.

The sage troika’s proposal met with surprisingly little opposition at the time, despite ESA’s explicitly stated focus on activities with “exclusively peaceful purposes”. Wiser heads in the European and wider polity could see that there existed no hard line dividing civilian and military space, and there were already natural synergies in the fields of satellite communication, remote sensing and intelligence.

Yesterday in Paris, ESA and the European Defence Agency (EDA) acted on the decade-old report commissioned by ESA, and put ink to an agreement on closer cooperation. The accord signed by ESA director general Jean-Jacques Dordain and EDA chief executive Claude-France Arnould goes beyond the existing level of cooperation on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, satellite communication, unmanned aerial systems and space situational awareness (Earth orbiting debris, radiation hazards and the like).

What the ESA-EDA accord doesn’t do is exceed the terms of the current ESA convention, which, as Dordain points out, makes no use whatsoever of the adjective “civilian”. The agreement signed yesterday includes provisions designed to ensure that technologies developed in common are not converted for use in weapon systems, and this is apparently enough to keep strictly neutral Switzerland happy.

The only question I have concerns the very active ESA collaboration with NASA, and how an extended ESA-EDA cooperation may impact on the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). Hopefully not at all, but greater cooperation could push toward an ESA integration with NATO. Militarily neutral European states would certainly not be happy about that.