In a bid to reinforce European strategic autonomy, this month the EU Commission has announced plans to build a 6 billion euro (US$6.8 billion) secure internet satellite system.
The aim is to provide reliable and fast internet across Europe and worldwide, to minimize communication dead zones and improve cohesion among the EU’s member states.
The plan integrates the EU’s defense policy ambitions with its economic interests on boosting strategic autonomy by providing an alternative to Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink satellite internet network with 42,000 planned satellites, Jeff Bezos’ Kuiper network with 3,200 planned satellites and the UK government’s OneWeb network with 650 planned satellites.
The EU’s proposed satellite constellation is also planned to provide connectivity over areas of strategic EU interest, such as Africa and the Arctic.
The system will be funded by a 2.4 billion euro ($2.7 billion) contribution from 2022 to 2027, with other funding sources including EU member states, the European Space Agency and private sector investments.
Development of the system could start next year, with the first service and quantum encryption by 2025, and the system could be ready for use by 2028. The plan is now being discussed by EU countries and the EU Parliament.
If successful, this internet satellite network will be the third pan-European space project, after the Galileo satellite navigation system and the Copernicus observation satellites. These projects provide European alternatives to the US Global Positioning System and Landsat earth imaging satellites.
French President Emmanuel Macron stressed the importance of Europe having its own internet satellite constellation. At a meeting in Toulouse, he said “there is no full power or autonomy without managing space” and “without it you can’t conquer new frontiers or even control your own.”
He also mentioned that Europe’s efforts to build its own internet satellite constellation was a “matter of sovereignty,” and that “Europe must take its place when it comes to constellations.”
Stressing the importance of satellite constellations, President Macron added that they “will be at the heart of our existence, of our lives,” being a critical component of emerging technologies such as high-speed internet, autonomous driving, emergency services and maritime transport.
President Macron stressed that without its own internet satellite constellation, Europe would need to hand over sensitive data to other powers which are not accountable under European law. He also added that Europe must act urgently to catch up with other space powers, such as China, Russia and the US.
Europe’s ambitious internet satellite program is in line with its upcoming Strategic Compass plan, which sketches out its defense priorities and aims to establish a joint military by 2025.
Part of this plan is to establish a new crisis response system that will address space-based threats and ward off hybrid and cyber-attacks. This need is highlighted by alleged Russian cyberattacks last year which aimed to steal data from, and spread disinformation among EU parliament members, government officials, reporters and citizens.
Also, the US’ Pivot to Asia may be a factor in Europe’s push to have its own internet satellite constellation. This shift in US strategic focus implies that it will likely no longer be engaged in large-scale conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, leaving Europe to be in charge of managing crises in these troubled neighboring regions.
As satellites are the operational center of gravity of today’s military operations, it makes sense for Europe to have its own military satellites, rather than rely on those of the US, considering the political and military strings attached to US technology.
Ultimately, Europe’s internet satellite constellation program ties into its larger goals of achieving strategic autonomy. While Europe has occasionally complained about its dependency on US security guarantees and subordinate status under NATO, until recently it has not contemplated acquiring the capabilities, decision-making structures and the strategic culture to defend its interests independently.
However, US democratic decay and its perceived decline, the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia have forced Europe to rethink its position on security and international affairs.
Notably, the 2019 hostile rhetoric of former US President Donald Trump to President Macron may have confirmed European concerns that the US has become an unreliable security partner.
While the succeeding Biden administration has vowed to restore US democracy and promote US leadership by example, Europe remains skeptical. The Trump administration has opened a host of US internal problems which the Biden administration seeks to address – it has significantly damaged US credibility to its partners and allies.
It is this context in which Europe pushes for strategic autonomy, with its internet satellite program being a significant indicator of its efforts to achieve such.