A European “Space Force”: the “Dark Side of Force” must be illuminated

Raketenstart Flugbahn. Copyright: SpaceX-Imagery, Pixabay #ge259d5966

By Daniel Salzer //

The alarm signal lights up on the screens of the employees in the blue-lit and darkened rooms – a Soyuz rocket is launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome with an unknown payload, for an unknown purpose. Once in space, a satellite separates from the carrier. After 11 days, this satellite suddenly becomes two, and the staff of the US Space Command and of the Space Force are surprised and shocked. Only a few days later these two objects float up to the top-secret KH-11 observation satellite, part of the Keyhole / CRYSTAL constellation, and circle it: purpose unknown. After intensive diplomatic activity, the two Cosmos satellites surprisingly leave their target and continue to orbit the earth until one of these satellites fires a shot into space. The signal from the Russian satellite power to the USA is clear – we can destroy the critical backbone of your defence, your satellites, at any time. You will then be blind, deaf, and disoriented. Science fiction? No, the Soyuz rocket with the two satellites, called Cosmos 2542 and Cosmos 2543, was launched from Plesetsk on November 26, 2019.

On January 8th, 2020 at around 1:00 AM, the infrared sensors of the US satellites detected the launch of more than a dozen Qiam-1 and Fateh-313 rockets from three launch sites in western Iran. The soldiers at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora, Colorado respond immediately. The trajectories are evaluated, and the American bases Al Awad and Erbil in Iraq are informed via the communication satellites. The rockets hit at 1:34 AM, and almost all of the soldiers stationed at these bases have sought protection in bunkers or trenches. 109 soldiers were injured, but no deaths were recorded. This is not science fiction either, this time many soldiers owe their lives to the functioning space infrastructure of the USA.

Since October 2014, the Russian satellite Luch-Olymp has “visited” around 15 western communications satellites, including in September 2018 the French-Italian military communications satellite Athena-Fidus. An anti-satellite missile system was tested in Russia in April 2019 and a laser system to dazzle satellites in December 2019. In March 2019, India tested its own anti-satellite system and destroyed its own satellite. Meanwhile, not only Russia, India, the United States and China, but also Iran, North Korea and Pakistan have the ability to destroy satellites and plan to develop these capabilities further.

There are around 1300 active satellites registered in the USA. The backbone of its military infrastructure consists of around 190 military and 170 official satellites for communication, ISR (earth observation, signal recognition, etc.) and navigation (GPS). To protect this critical backbone, a true Achilles heel of Western defence, the US is building the US Space Command and the Space Force. For this, personnel from the other branches of the armed forces will be deployed, starting with 16,000 Air Force employees. The estimated one-off additional budget required to build up these new armed forces over the next 5 years is US-$ 3 billion, plus US-$ 1 billion for new administrative positions.

And what is Europe doing? Around 30 military satellites are in operation in Europe: in France, Great Britain, Italy, Germany and Spain. This represents a fraction of the US infrastructure, but it is all the more critical for that reason. On the occasion of the Luch Olympus case, on July 14, 2019, President Macron announced the establishment of the “Commandement de l’Espace”, which was set up in Toulouse on September 8, 2019, to protect the French space infrastructure.

Immediately after the announcement, the German aerospace coordinator commented on this, criticized the French for their stand-alone initiative and suggested a European initiative. But what happened afterwards at the European level? Where is a European initiative? Certainly, Europe cannot build anything comparable to the US Space Command – if only for financial reasons. Europe must be closely linked to US capabilities. For this purpose, Europe would have to bring in capabilities complementary to the USA, for example in the area of ground infrastructure, sensors for the observation of rocket launches from the ground and from space (e.g. complementary to US Space Fence radar system that went into operation in March 2020) and, if necessary, anti-satellite capabilities. Except for some rather embryonic national initiatives in space situational awareness, Europe has very little or nothing to offer compared with the US. We also need European data processing centres, communication, and further technology.

Is there a strategy for an effective use and defence of the critical space infrastructure at European level? Do we even need one?

Of course, Europe has an alternative – to train our armed forces intensively in the use of the sextant for position determination and to set up air force pilots in aerial photography and to deploy carrier pigeon battalions for communication. Just in case.