Venus to Mars? EU militarism takes a turn towards the final frontier

Spectrezine, March 4, 2009 , interview with Frank Slijper

Frank Slijper is an activist with the Dutch Campaign Against the Arms Trade. He recently authored From Venus to Mars The European Union’s steps towards the militarisation of space An article in which Slijper summarised his position, “How space has become part of Europe’s emerging military policies” was published recently on Spectrezine. Spectre editor Steve McGiffen travelled to The Hague to interview him.

Spectre: Our readers may be aware of the report and of your article published recently in Spectre, but they may not be aware of the details of this process. Can you begin by giving us examples of the type of EU activity that makes you believe that, firstly, the EU is hell-bent on militarization and, secondly, that there is an aspect of this which involves space policy?
Frank Slijper: The basis of all this is the EU space policy that was developed over the past decade and finally launched in May 2005. That is now the basis of all space activities of the EU, including military ones, which have so far received comparatively little attention. Two major examples of European space initiatives with a clear military component are the Galileo Global Position System, which has an important capability of use for military purposes, and Copernicus, which was formerly known as GMES (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security). You see “security” coming into this all the time; they put the label “security” on it but, in fact, it’s a much broader militarized component. You can see a satellite has monitoring capability for military policies and military purposes by the EU; it is navigation and observation with military components.
S: You are a campaigner against the weapons trade; presumably you don’t consider war to be a solution to human difficulties.
FS: I’m a peace activist.
S: So there’s nothing unusual about the fact that you are campaigning against the militarisation of the EU in general. But is there something special about the question for space, or do you think that it’s just something to be addressed because we’ve got the technology now? I have a feeling that this is a pristine environment that we’ve kept free of weapons. Do you have this feeling too? Or is this because since it’s the latest development of the other side, you must respond?
FS: From different perspectives, yes. The EU has long been involved in space: developing space technology, having missions with countries outside the EU. There’s nothing strange or new about it. The new thing is military involvement. The dangers of it were some of the reasons why I wrote this paper. One, it is under the field of mostly civilian application. There’s no clear military component, especially for an outsider, and that is directly one of the main objections against it, this blurring of civilian and military aspects and capabilities and of space assets. This is the danger and it’s one recognized by a lot of space scientists as well. Another risk is to scientific space technology development, because it becomes more and more reliant on military funding. That’s often where money is most easily available.
S: I find that this matter of dual use technologies is a real problem. There are space technologies which are useful, for instance in tracking the effects of climate change. Some of these uses could save lives. The problem with dual use is that, say, the Dutch government wants to replace its fighter planes, as it does. As a campaigner against weapons, you know where you stand because there’s nothing else you can do with a fighter plane but kill people. But if you have a satellite surveillance device, you can use this, for example – and this is an example I came across personally a few years ago, in researching enforcement of EU Common Fishing Policy rules – fishermen in the North of England were totally positive about the ‘spy in the sky’ as it had been dubbed. Their point was that the UK was already vigilant in enforcing these rules, but that other countries were cheating. So the ‘spy in the sky’ was on their side, they felt. Now, if you’re going to be developing these space technologies, which can be very useful to us, it makes opposition more difficult.
FS: Well, I think the Eurocrats and the people from the industry exploited this in a very smart way. They know that it’s hard to be against security measures as long as it serves a clear purpose. So with the Copernicus system, a monitoring satellite, one of the purposes is to have a kind of “early warning” system to find out when harvests may fail, or to track pirates near the coast of Somalia. At the same time, it has the potential to be misused. It’s even clearer with navigation satellites that you use in your car and that everyone loves: it’s also known that the Americans use GPS-guided ammunition for warfare. Space, which you called “pristine”, is an environment that has been used for a long time for civilian purposes for a kind of common interest. There was competition, but no military rivalry. But when you start to use civilian capabilities for military purposes, you invoke or risk an arms race in space. That’s what I wrote about in the paper. Actually, we have seen an early and potentially dangerous example in the shooting down of satellites by both the Chinese and the Americans over the past couple of years.
S: But if you’ve got technology that can be used for people’s benefit but can also be used for warfare, what exactly do you do? A progressive government in say the Netherlands, one committed to peace, could simply pull out of buying fighter planes, but they couldn’t stop the development of these potentially useful technologies because they wouldn’t want to. It seems impossible to ensure that at some point they wouldn’t be used for military purposes.
FS: It clearly is very difficult. First of all, Europe is very difficult when it comes to campaigning. When I wrote this paper, even with the Internet, I found it hard to find the information I needed. I had to dig deep to find out what’s really going on. You have all these military magazines where specialists and space journalists write articles, but there’s nothing for the general public, which has no clue what’s going on in Brussels, let alone about space policies. The purpose of this paper was mostly to make a broader public aware of this process, which has gained considerable speed over the past four to five years.
S: Still, if on the other hand you believe that Europe is under serious threat of aggression, you will support having these weapons. How do you convince people that such aggression as exists can be countered in other ways? To be a devil’s advocate, if these satellites are being developed anyway, why not adapt them to protect people from military attack?
FS: First of all, I can’t foresee any potential attack on the Netherlands or most of Europe in which space technology would make a difference to preventing it. In general, I don’t believe in technological revolutions to prevent disaster-not in a military sense, at least. Especially now, when you have a situation where the US, for many years, has had its policy for complete space dominance; with a new government coming in; with initiatives by Russia and China to, at least, renew discussion within the UN on outer space. It’s important for the EU to have a purely pacifist role in this. That’s the only way to make yourself a credible partner in any process that would lead to retreating from space in the military sense: stopping development that has a nuclear risk from getting out of hand and evolving into an arms race in space.
S: There are critics of the EU’s military space programmes who have, however, no real problems with the military exploitation of space in principle. Many are quite conservative Americans worried about the EU’s failure to divide military and civilian programmes. NASA is purportedly a purely peaceful organisation, and other agencies take care of military technologies and developments. Why has the EU chosen to use the European Space Agency (ESA) for this rather than establishing a new, openly military cooperation body? The problem is, logically enough, that other powers, including the US, may be reluctant to share technologies and know-how if they are expected to do so with a directly military body.
F: That might be one of the dangers ahead and a disadvantage for the EU as a consequence of this mixing up of military and civil applications. The reality behind it, I think, is that from a European perspective, the only way to get a common space policy with its common space capabilities was to make use of existing civilian initiatives or to adapt mostly or predominately civilian initiatives by giving them a military angle. Otherwise, there is no money-or big sums of money that you need for these very expensive space systems-to use in this military way. You have separate member states with their own programmes, and you have military satellites from France, Italy, or Germany. But they have also come up with a common cooperation program to use these satellites under the umbrella of like-minded nations who wish to contribute some money towards it and fund it as a common capability.
S: I was thinking about this from the point of view of a neutral country such as Switzerland, which is not an EU country but which is affiliated to ESA. ESA is not an EU body, it’s simply the one through which the EU conducts its space research and development. And in any case there are, of course, neutral countries within the EU. Say the EU uses its space capability to conduct surveillance in former Yugoslavia, does that violate Swiss neutrality?
FS: I don’t think they’ve even figured out all the legal and other diplomatic foreign policy implications.
S: Another question that people may pose is whether it isn’t desirable to develop military independence from the US?
FS: Yes, of course. It makes sense in some way because you want to maintain some independence. You don’t want to completely rely on the US. The Galileo initiative largely developed from this: during the Kosovo war, European troops were fully dependent on American GPS coordinates, which were controlled by the US. But, on the other hand, I think Europe should set an example by not copying the US model. They should set a very different example of how we Europeans look at international peace and security. Therefore, I think, it is very dangerous for the EU to go down a road which looks identical to US policy. Where the EU could make a very positive difference is in developing a foreign policy that is mostly, if not completely, dependent on issues like diplomacy, on non-military means.
S: That would break with tradition. I must admit that I have doubts with your title. I’ve never seen a “Venus” in the European Union, and the “Mars” is very evident in European history. The EU is a child of the Cold War, and it’s got the four most militarily aggressive countries in the 20th century as members.
FS: It’s never had a common military space policy. And if you compare the past ten to fifteen years with the thirty years before, you see, at least psychologically, very important breakthroughs and discussion of things that were unheard of or not talked about in the past.
S: Such as?
FS: Common military research under the EU research budget was unheard of even five years ago.
S: Let’s turn to the French presidency, which ended at the end of last year. What did the French presidency set out to achieve in this field?
FS: It was one of their priorities when they took over in July. As always, before a presidency, member states have ambitious agendas. But you see, we’ve had the financial crisis and the war between Georgia and Russia, so I think they haven’t completely made of it what some of them had perceived in advance. However, in November there was an important annual meeting of the European space ministers, who secured a substantial budget for the coming three years. I think it’s a confirmation of the roads they’ve travelled, and it is more or less fully backed by most member states, which is really the revolution happening in this area. I think before the French EU presidency, they would’ve liked to see more, but in its own terms, it was a success.
S: Let’s move into the implications of the adoption or rejection of the Lisbon Treaty.. What does the Lisbon Treaty offer those who want to see the space around the Earth bristling with European weaponry?
FS: It integrates space into the European security and defence domain. That’s the new aspect, together with other developments like the European Defence Agency. In the whole chapter on military capabilities, space has become an integral part of it this. .
S: I recently spoke to someone from the official EU defence research group based in Paris. His line was that military policy was security policy, that in other words it need not be aggressive but can be purely defensive, and that the problem at the moment was duplication of effort, because European production was not coordinated. Their line is that in this instance, we don’t want to say that we want to unify defence space policy because we are militaristic; we want to avoid the duplication of effort, which means that member states get more bang for their buck.
FS: Well, despite being an antimilitarist, I don’t object to more military cooperation if it ensures proper reductions in spending. To me, it’s ridiculous that every coastal country wants to have submarines and big naval vessels. You could combine a lot more and reduce spending. But this isn’t all that people in Brussels and the industry want. At the time of the Dutch and French referendums on the European Constitution, Javier Solana, the EU’s High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, adapted his tone so that he began to talk less in terms of sharing of existing capabilities and more about an overall strengthening. But how can you increase your capabilities without extra spending? This was also the kind of thing you heard in the lobbying environment and in the organized business events. All the time, they need more and more money. Some military cooperation where it means reduction of defence expenditures: to me, that’s fine. But you at least need to be aware of influential hawkish groups of people who want to go the way it has developed in the US.
S: Does spending money on space defence technology mean that there is less money for peaceful exploitation of space’s potential?
FS: The money might come under pressure. They’ve had their ministerial meeting just in time. A year from now, it might be harder to secure the kind of budget that they’ve just secured, when governments really get into trouble financially. Even with some useful purposes, it’s not the most pressing need on earth. It might come under threat, but I think it can go both ways. Government can use expenditure on space, including military means, as a boost to the economy and employment. At the same time, they could cut it at points where they say, “This is what we need less of at this time.” Generally speaking, even if this economic downturn lasts for another one to three years, the general trend won’t change.
S: I’m fascinated by the way words are redefined in the context of modern politics. In the Treaty on European Union, it says that the EU is for the peaceful development of space. But now, you can apparently have military development of space that is peaceful. You can also have military developments of space that can be non-peaceful. How did we arrive in this Alice-in-Wonderland situation where words mean whatever you want it to mean?
FS: That is very difficult but it’s also what you see in the terror threat and the war on terror. You use the psychology of frightening people. It’s the same with this: calling it military but defining it as non-aggressive, or defining military as peaceful, or security as peaceful, or military as security. You create myths and worse than this, you deceive people. You don’t describe things like they are. Instead you create some kind of rosy picture that it’s for our own good. They know that it’s better to say “security research” than “military research”.
S: I don’t want to seem paranoid, but are there technologies that will be used against us, against civil disorder…?
FS: Certainly, well, if you look at civilian applications. There are already very sharp and high-resolution pictures.
S: Someone pointed out in a newspaper that you can take a picture of the skylight at 10 Downing Street. I find it incredible that they can put this on the Internet!
FS: You see how the military often responds slowly, even more so than ten to twenty ago, with this revolution in information technology. I mean, for example, NGOs come up with pictures of new Chinese submarines that they’ve spotted through commercially available satellite pictures, and the US intelligence community is stunned. You can’t hide it any more. They’ve tried to make deals with Google and Microsoft to not survey military positions, but there are others who care less and at some point, there’ll be something completely uncontrollable. Sometimes, it’s good to get beyond state control; on the other hand, you’ll see the reverse, that the military will use commercially available techniques and technologies. That’s how the Chinese government uses their firewall on the Internet.
S: The other thing is about the police… The latest example of what I’m thinking of was a few weeks ago, on TV, they showed three Liverpool policemen, two who had knocked this guy to the ground, but the third one is kicking him, it looks like he wants the man to die. Unfortunately for the policeman, the victim turned out to be a soldier from Iraq on leave. But this is the same, we’ve got the potential to use these technologies ourselves.
FS: If you relate it to this discussion, there are so many angles to it. I could even imagine that in just a few years, there may be technologies available in the civilian market to interfere with satellite technology or GPS. This is not only bad for car users but for US operations in Iraq. What would they do against this?
S: I’ve got some last questions. I would like to ask what you’d like to see as policy and what you would really, really like to see-which may never happen, but what we could incrementally do or demand of the EU without expecting miracles. What should we demand of the EU that it is likely to do?
FS: On a positive side, stress the need for international negotiations to prevent an arms race in space. I mean, that’s clearly an issue where the EU can make a difference as an intermediary between the US on one hand and Russia and China on the other. I think that recently they’ve been trying to do so. Then again, more credibly, they can do so while stepping back or at least, most realistically, becoming more clear on their military plans without all of this “security” labelling.
S: I recently read an article on Obama’s election, which argued that while it was good news for those on welfare benefits or those with kids in school, it wasn’t going to make a big difference to foreign policy. Do you have any positive feelings on the possibility of change from the new administration in the US?
FS: We’ll have to see. If you continue with the same defence minister; if you introduce Republicans in crucial defence posts; I’m not sure. I can see why Obama would do it: he’d do it to continue Bush’s defence politics and you need to create some kind of support base within the military. I’m afraid that he’s too much into consensus and pacifying the Republicans. I’m not sure what will happen, for example, with big ticket procurement programs. Will they be changed? Will Obama really cut ties with the strong influence of the defence industry in the Washington area? I mean, you can draw back troops from Iraq, but then he wants to ship them to Afghanistan. As you can see now, people who’ve just come out of the government may take high positions with companies in the next months
S: That kind of thing isn’t exclusive to American politics, either.
FS: You see this here too, yes, this revolving door principle. It’s dangerous. Especially when it involves the least democratic part of society, which is the military.


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