The revised 2018 Capability Development Plan (CD P) with its 11 EU Capability Development Priorities clearly reflects the indispensability of space as an enabler for the use of unmanned and autonomous systems in defence. Unmanned maritime high-end platforms, for instance, which have just been identified as a European priority to achieve maritime surface superiority through long endurance at sea, are just one example where support from space-based applications has become critical.

Equally, a whole range of other unmanned systems already used by the Armed Forces – such as Medium Altitude Long Endurance Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (MALE RPAS), smaller Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or even micro - drones , – will basically not be able to deploy and project their Information, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. “If those systems don’t have access to strong and resilient space telecommunication systems, space situational awareness tools and Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) support provided by satellites, they are simply not operational”, says Holger Lueschow, EDA’s Programme Manager Satellite Communication.

In a nutshell: they all are heavily dependent on space-based support.


Challenges and opportunities

The very nature of unmanned and autonomous systems is that they operate without the presence of humans in the cockpit or on the platform. They are either ground-controlled by operators (unmanned systems) or guided by a process without direct human interaction (autonomous systems). The autonomous functionality applies either throughout the whole operation or takes effect under emergency circumstances, for instance when the control link to the ground operator is disrupted. Hence the need for unmanned and autonomous systems to constantly rely on strong telecommunication capabilities, perfect situational awareness and precise and accurate PNT services.

The Copernicus programme can deliver benefits to both civilian and military sectors

This poses a variety of challenges for space operators, notably:

● Assured access. Users of unmanned and autonomous defence systems need to have guaranteed access to the space services or resources they rely on, at all times and to the full extent. This means that these services cannot be appropriated by other users or third parties. Also, recovery functions to quickly restore broken communication links need to be an integral part of the systems.

● Jamming and interference. Additionally, space services must be resilient to interference and must offer technical and procedural means to quickly remedy any interference that occurs on a service provided. Space system operators have to be able to identify the location and type of the interference or jamming source in order to take immediate and appropriate action.

● Interception and intrusion. Space services supporting unmanned and autonomous applications must guarantee full protection against any intruder trying to intercept transmitted data and information. This particular risk needs to be assessed throughout the process leading to the delivery of the space services. It requires a truly holistic approach which has to encompass the ground and space segments of the system, the deployed technologies, the industrial processes, the launch and operations of the satellites, and the users. Satellites and payloads hosting space

● Dependence on third parties. Specific attention needs to be paid to the risk of space projects becoming dependent on third parties (Third States and/or non-EU Organisations). Due to the sensitivity of national or European defence missions and operations in which unmanned and autonomous systems are used, such a dependency may not be acceptable as it could hamper Member States’ and the EU’s autonomy of action.

Galileo/EGNOS, Copernicus and GOVSATCOM

The European Union and its Member States are taking these challenges seriously. They have established an EU-owned positioning, navigation and timing capability (Galileo/ EGNOS) and set up an EU space-based earth observation programme (Copernicus).

Another important proposal is currently under consideration: the EU initiative on Governmental Satellite Communication (GOVSATCOM). With the EU GOVSATCOM project, secure and guaranteed access to satellite communications will be provided for EU security and defence actors.

Although Galileo/EGNOS is a civilian programme, Member States’ military users and the European Commission are expanding their cooperation to identify potential Galileo/ EGNOS services which could also benefit the Armed Forces. Under the EU Copernicus civilian programme, the specific ’Support to External Action’ service is able to deliver products that can be of interest to EU military users and EU operations. On the other hand, EU GOVSATCOM is perceived as a dual-use capability and its intention is to support civilian and military user communities for crisis management, surveillance and key infrastructures.

EDA space activities supporting unmanned and autonomous systems

In parallel with these EU initiatives, the European Defence Agency (EDA) has put several space projects in place to support existing and future unmanned and autonomous systems.

For example, in the air domain, Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) carrying out air and maritime surveillance missions, require Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) communication capabilities which can only be provided through satellite communication links. There are two distinct types of satellite communications to be considered for RPAS; the first relates to the RPAS operation – the Command and Non-Payload Communications (CNPC) link, and the second relates to its payload (sensor data transfer link). Whilst the CNPC link has a limited bandwidth with a very robust waveform, the data link requires a relatively high bandwidth and the payload needs to be controlled.

EDA has also established a GOVSATCOM Pooling & Sharing Demonstration project to support ,among others, this RPAS requirement. The underlying concept of this project is that EDA Member States operating national satellite communication assets will make their excess capacities available to other interested EDA Member States who don’t possess their own governmental resources.

The project has clear objectives: providing Member States’ Armed Forces and European Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) actors with reliable and guaranteed access to satellite communication in a resilient and secure context, along with the use of unmanned and autonomous systems. This is a cost-efficient solution, because it will avoid a situation in which each Member State operates its own national secure satellite communication project.

Another key benefit of the EDA GOVSATCOM project is that it contributes to the harmonisation of European military’s needs and requirements for secure satellite communication. Thus, this project works against the fragmentation of a demand for such services and will also contribute to the EU GOVSATCOM project.

As regards EDA’s activities in the field of PNT, Member States recently identified the requirements relating to military PNT and mandated EDA to act as facilitator for the EU Member States’ MoDs in the EU Galileo/ EGNOS programme.

Even though, at this stage, the military requirements of confidentiality, availability and integrity cannot be totally guaranteed by Copernicus services, EDA and the European Commission (based on the EDA mandate on Space-Based Earth Observation) have started to increase their interactions in order to identify potential common interests in the future, beyond 2025-2030. 

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