Conquest of space: Europe nailed to the ground

Far from being a simple race to find out who will place the first flag on Mars or who will place the most flags on the Moon by 2050, the conquest of space today encompasses many major technical challenges that deserve reflection for those who want to guarantee a sovereignty worthy of the name. The current challenges of conquering space mainly consist of the sovereign use of satellites for scientific purposes (astronomical observation, microgravity, Earth observation, oceanography), economic (telecommunications, positioning, meteorological forecasts), but also and above all military (intelligence, listening, cartography). By way of example, the data recorded relating to the use of GPS belongs to the federal government of the United States which, despite the provisions of the judgment of the Supreme Court of the United States in the case “Carpenter versus the United States”he does not refrain from using them for his own purposes.

To illustrate the strategic measure of this technology, it is relevant to remember that in July 2019, Emmanuel Macron announced the creation of the Air and Space Force and that on March 9, 2021, France launched AsterX, the first space military exercise in France and Europe.

A strategic will undermined by the difficulties of the European aerospace sector

Having carried out only five launches in 2022 – against 60 from China and 76 from the United States – the European Union promises several future launches thanks to its multiple projects that aim to build European autonomy in space. Thus, Copernicus, Galileo and Iris2, respectively, support European observation, geopositioning and communication policies. If the EU knows how to project itself into space, the political optimism it demonstrates is not equal to the technical prowess. It is a fact that today Europe no longer has launchers to put its satellites into orbit. The EU, however, has adopted a substantial budget of €16.9 billion for the period 2023-2025 with regard to the space sector. The budget thus increases by 17% compared to the previous period.

To underline the setbacks the European Union finds itself in, it seems interesting to convey to the press the votes of Guillaume Faury, president of GIFAS. He announces that Europe “At the beginning of 2023, we find ourselves in a situation of unprecedented crisis in access to space in Europe. A particularly serious situation. The president of GIFAS was also measured by the opportunities that the year 2023 would present: “the year 2023 presented itself under the sign of recovery, in the continuity of 2022, but also probably with still many difficulties, setbacks and obstacles that we met last year”.

Some will naturally be tempted to ask the following question: whose fault is it? In reality, the sector has suffered from a lack of strategic vision and unpredictability “headwinds” that the room for maneuver, constitutive of all power, could not be overcome.

Firstly, Ariane 6’s replacement launchers were significantly delayed. Until very recently, Europe used Ariane 5 launchers to secure access to space. The transition to Ariane 6, enacted in 2014, was supposed to take place during 2020. Due to the accumulation of delays, namely due to the epidemic, the first flight of these new generation launchers has now been postponed until the end of 2023. European revealed that it only has two more Ariane 5 launchers. The last batch was even canceled by European players.

Second, the Vega-C next-generation launcher program failed during its first commercial flight on Wednesday, December 21, 2022. “The mission is lost”declared Stéphane Israël, president of thearianespace. The mission was not only a technical failure, but also sealed the fate of the Old Continent, which found itself without a rocket and without the possibility of launching new satellites. After a successful maiden flight on July 13, 2022, the Vega-C rocket would take the last two observation satellites built by Airbus, Pleiades Neo 5 and 6, for its first commercial flight. point on the globe with a resolution of 30 centimeters.

Before the war, the European Union enjoyed a strategic partnership with Russia Roscosmos for its satellite launch operations. »

Finally, the space partnership between the EU and Russia was interrupted due to the war in Ukraine. Before the war, the European Union enjoyed a strategic partnership with Russia Roscosmos for its satellite launch operations. This partnership ensured that the EU could count on Soyuz launchers to compensate for any unforeseen schedules. The European blockade of Russian products undermines the last alternative solution and nails Europeans to the ground.

The underside of an ecosystem in dire financial straits

Nonetheless, airbus, Ariane Group and Plane they are just the leading figures of European space activity. Consequently, they are not the main victims of the crisis that crosses the European space. Indeed, these companies involve a significant number of intermediaries who are medium or even small companies. The latter are in “Very, very difficult to respond to the resumption of growth in production and deliveries in almost all sectors of our industry” according to Martin Sion, president of Aerospace and Defense Equipment Group (GEAD) and Safran Electronics and Defense. It should be noted that the decline of these nuggets implies a global increase in costs, delivery times and the dependence of Europeans on external players capable of blocking and spying on operations.

The first challenge of these companies is neither more nor less than theexplosion in the cost of clean energy for the industrial sector. If we still don’t see any strategic reversal or relocation project, Saffron has already decided to freeze, for 18 to 24 months, a project to create a fourth carbon brake factory in France – an activity in which energy represents 40% of the costs.

Furthermore, Intermediate players, highly indebted, face an unprecedented cash crisis. The rapid recovery of the sector, desired by European political actors, imposes a pace that requires the intervention of disproportionate investments at a time when companies are starting to repay loans granted during the health crisis. Furthermore, rampant inflation in any sector is weighing on corporate profitability and reducing their margins to the point where it annihilates any hope that small businesses will break free of their shackles.

Finally, the european aerospace sector suffers from a shortage of raw materials. An emblematic case of the current crisis, the European aeronautical sector is totally dependent on Russian titanium. The war in Ukraine has resurrected the risks associated with a lack of diversified supply chains. Actors are therefore hit by a crucial lack of leeway and an increase in the cost of raw materials.

“Despite the French president’s dreams of European solidarity, it is clear that this idealism constitutes a pious hope, judging by the attitude of German power towards the “common strategy. »

The German economic war handed over to the Italian and French giants

The space strategy for Europe of May 30, 2017 included an obligation for the contracting parties (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland and Great Britain) to develop and design satellites compatible with the European launchers then under development. He also urged actors to “preferably” launch services offered by arianespace. Despite the French President’s dreams of European solidarity, it is clear that this idealism constitutes a pious hope, judging by the attitude of the German authorities towards the “common strategy”. HBOT has another competing agenda with that of Ariane 6: the German manufacturer launches its RFA One mini-launchers on the market from 2024.

Symptom of this disharmony, theGerman Space Agency (DLR) opted in April 2022 for the American Falcon 9 launcher from SpaceX for its launch operations for its Earth observation satellites. At European level, the boss ofHBOTMarco Fuchs, who advises theESA in its launch options for Galileo, campaigned for the integration of alternative launcher offers (from the American SpaceX or indian GSLV).

In fact, the group is not on its first try. FRG had already trusted SpaceX the launch of the German SARAh military radar satellites in 2013. Interviewed by the magazine challengesOlivier Andies, CEO of Safran, said “that there are players who hide behind geographic return clauses in order not to play the game of solidarity around Ariane 6 and ArianeGroup. There are centrifugal tendencies. We should be able to maintain European cement around Ariane globally.”. if HBOT is not explicitly mentioned, it is indeed this actor in question.

the lobby ofHBOT against “common strategy” defended in 2017 announced itself as the winner. Thierry Breton, European commissioner for the internal market, was thus in the direction of the German proposal by opening the door to external launchers. Despite everything, a security clause obliges the launch of Galileo satellites in European territory. This provision effectively excludes the offer of SpaceX, which does not fly outside the United States. In addition, the European geolocation system is already functional, there is no need to rush the launch of the last satellites by launchers on the other side of the Atlantic.

The US protectionist measures (Infrastructure Investment and Employment Law, Chip Law and Science and Inflation Reduction Act) that include an explicit preference for US technologies, French President Emmanuel Macron has opposed legislation of a “Buy European Law”. Already supported by the candidate Macron in 2017 and inherited from Nicolas Sarkozy’s program in 2012, the proposal never pleased Brussels, which insists on defending the foundations of free competition on which it was precisely based.

More than a strategic failure of the European Union, the lack of access to space illustrates once again the inextricable division of its members. It is therefore, from the French point of view, to bear in mind the competition in which the Europeans engage in space theater, under the guise of cooperation. One proponent of this economic war is none other than the transfer of part of the production of the Ariane 6’s Vinci rocket engines to Germany to obtain its cooperation. However, this technology was a sovereign asset, in particular because of its military applications, such as powering ballistic missiles for the French oceanic nuclear deterrent.

Benoit Lacoux

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