EU lays out plans for secure satellite communications

The European Commission presented a €6 billion satellite communications plan on Tuesday (15 February), as part of a push to cut the EU’s dependence on foreign companies.

The EU initiative aims to protect key communications services and surveillance data against any outside interference as concerns grow over Russian and Chinese military advances in outer space and a surge in satellite launches.

The push for secure connectivity comes in response to the growing demand for satellite communications. The aim is to develop a multi-orbital space-based connectivity system that will extend the availability of these services.

“Space plays a growing role in our daily lives, our economic growth, our security, and our geopolitical weight”, said Thierry Breton, Commissioner for the Internal Market.

Breton told French TV channel BFM earlier on Monday that the EU needed a sovereign system with encryption that governments and companies could use.

“It is indispensable that Europe has its own constellation and not depend on the Americans and Chinese,” he said.

“It will run north-south and secure our communications in case of a cyberattack. It has a military and sovereign dimension. We can offer connectivity to the continent of Africa,” he added.

The EU proposal aims to build and operate a space-based state-of-the-art connectivity system, help to counter cyber and electromagnetic threats and improve the resilience of EU telecommunication infrastructures.

The connectivity infrastructure developed is intended by the Commission to be a “technology-setter” and as a means of protecting critical infrastructure, conducting surveillance and boosting the national-level economic, security and defence functions of EU countries.

On a practical level, the system could have a range of applications, from space surveillance and use in military operations to telemedicine and maritime search and rescue missions.

The Commission links the new proposal also to the EU’s Global Gateway strategy, a scheme to foster better links in sectors including digital, energy, health and transport, through its goal of expanding connectivity to areas of geostrategic importance such as Africa and the Arctic.

“Our new connectivity infrastructure will deliver high-speed internet access, serve as a back-up to our current internet infrastructure, increase our resilience and cybersecurity, and provide connectivity to the whole of Europe and Africa,” he added.

The comments came after a lengthy EU visit by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and multiple of her Commissioners to Senegal and ahead of a crucial EU-Africa summit later this week.

The programme’s initial deployment could begin next year, with initial services launched by 2025 and full provision with quantum cryptography set up by 2028.

The €6 billion costs will be funded by a €2.4 billion contribution from the EU from the current EU budget, EU member states, the European Space Agency (ESA) and private investments.

“Space technology is essential for our everyday life and security”, Commission VP Margrethe Vestager, responsible for digital issues, said.

The connectivity proposal will benefit “both citizens and governments. It will play a key role in Europe’s digital transformation. And make us more competitive”, she added.

The Commission’s proposal still needs to secure the approval of EU member states and the European Parliament.

Even though, according to some EU diplomats, there were reservations, they said they believed the plan would have good chances to receive approval.

Space traffic management

Alongside this initiative, the EU also wants to increase the management of space traffic.

EU officials have described space as a “congested and contested” area.

It is already highly populated with satellites and debris, which is set to grow in future: more than 20,000 satellites and 1 million pieces of debris expected to join them over the next decade.

“It is congested, with more and more satellites: 4,500 are operational and there are 11,800 in all remaining in orbit. Plus 128 million pieces of debris that pose security issues,” one EU official said.

“The big players test themselves in space. We can no longer ignore the spatial dimension of our defence strategy,” the official added.

According to the Commission, a new strategy on space traffic management (STM) will pave the way for the development of more concrete actions, norms and legislation on safety and sustainability in space.

It will place particular emphasis on defining the civilian and military needs and implications of STM as well as, on a technical level, boosting capacity for the identification and tracking of spacecraft and debris.

Breton noted that the intention was “to propose a European approach to the management of space traffic covering operational and regulatory needs, but also to enable us to continue international cooperation.”

The new strategy underlines the need for the establishment of international partnerships on STM, given the subject’s expansive scope.

“STM is not something that should be seen only within the perimeter of the EU. It is by definition an international area, and we have to settle it with our international partners,” a senior Commission expert said.

“We’re in close contact with the US… they’ve got their own programmes together with us”, he said, adding that he hoped “that when we can reinstate smooth dialogue with Russia that we can work with them as well”.

“But it’s essential that Europe has its own logic, its own philosophy and of course, its own means and resources and that’s what we propose,” he added.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]


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