As defense budgets shrink, drive for international space cooperation grows
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Civilian space projects, including the International Space Station, have driven cooperation between the U.S. and its allies for more than 20 years.
With defense belt-tightening squeezing military space endeavors across Europe, North America and the Pacific, the people in uniform are hatching plans for similar cooperation in defense satellite work.
Some cooperative projects are already flying, including a military communications satellite used by American, Canadian and Australian forces. Air Force Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski told an audience at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs on Wednesday that working with allies makes financial sense as the Pentagon plans to cuts billions from its space budget over the next decade.
"We needed to reach out and share the costs of access to space," said Pawlikowski who commands the Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base, which develops the Air Force's new satellites and rockets.
Allies were reaching out to the U.S. at the Space Symposium, which drew a large international contingent among its 9,000 attendees.
"Let's be clear: It is very difficult for a single European nation to afford a full-spectrum capability," said Col. Dominique Arbiol, a French air force officer who oversees military space efforts there.
"My minister is very, very keen on international cooperation," said Cdmr. Volker Brasen, a German navy officer who serves as a top space officer in his country's defense ministry.
Cost is a big factor for prospective foreign partners. With top-notch military communication satellites running $500 million, space can put a major dent in any defense budget.
Foreign space leaders, though, say they're not looking for a free ride from U.S. taxpayers.
"We'll have to play our part fully in our contribution," said British Air Vice Marshal Edward Stringer, whose job includes leading space efforts.
There is an uncomfortable aspect to cooperation in space. Even the closest U.S. allies have operated their own space programs out of a desire to control how the satellites are used.
"That is the baseline for everything. You need a common political goal," said Brasen.
While global agreement on satellites used for military missions may be difficult to attain, there are areas of shared concern that are driving partnerships. Atop that list is surveillance of satellites and space junk to ensure that expensive satellites aren't lost to orbital collisions.
"Space surveillance certainly contributes to collective security," Arbiol said.
The U.S. is already partnering with Canada on its first military satellite, the 326-pound Sapphire, which uses optical sensors to track objects in earth's orbit.
"We have never tried to do this alone," said Brig. Gen. Michel Lalumiere, director general of Canadian military space programs.
The U.S. also relies on Britain and Australia to house space tracking and surveillance stations.
The Pentagon has authorized sending a new space-tracking radar and telescope to Australia to improve space surveillance in the Southern Hemisphere.
Brig. Gen. Roger Teague, director of operations at Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs, said the drive for international cooperation shows how important satellites have grown around the globe.
"Space systems provide a significant benefit to the world," he said.
More joint projects with allies could be conceived in Colorado Springs before the symposium ends Thursday night.
"We need to further grow our partnerships," Teague said.