A top priority for the U.S. Space Force is the resilience of U.S. satellite networks against foreign threats, such as China and Russia, including against ground-based lasers and other systems designed to destroy U.S. military satellites.

But budgets are tight, and that means that it’s crucial that the DoD prioritizes, and invests in the most essential technologies, not just for this purpose, but so it remains at the leading edge militarily and technologically, shoring up its position as the world’s foremost defense superpower.

One such technology is optical communication. Though the U.S. is investing in domestic laser R&D, the leaders in the field among its allies are in Europe. Photonics21, the European technology platform, points out that Europe’s market share is 16 percent of the global industry – second only to China.

And the broader European photonics industry is growing at three times the rate of the continent’s GDP. EU programs, including Horizon 2020 and its successor, Horizon Europe, have strengthened commercial photonics and photonics research through investment. There is also a broad network of research universities and institutions across Europe whose work undergirds the commercial applications of laser. The U.S. can make use of this robust photonics infrastructure in Europe to boost its defense.

But why optical communications? Because the dominant technology used for space-to-ground communication is still radio, which is fully mature and reliable but always at risk of interception and jamming in conflict scenarios. A satellite’s radio transmission to Earth can span across tens of kilometers, making it ideal for applications like satellite TV but less suitable for direct, point-to-point communications crucial in sectors such as defense. This is because anyone within the transmission’s reach can potentially intercept the signal, and the presence of ‘side lobes’ expands the detection area even further. Additionally, radio waves can interfere with each other, necessitating regulated and careful management of the radio spectrum.

On the other hand, laser communication technology, though not as widely recognised, offers alternative capabilities to RF radio waves in a number of ways. It can send data up to 1000 times faster than radio signals. Its inherent characteristics prevent signal dispersion or leakage with a footprint of just 12 meters from low-Earth orbit to the ground. Lasers are thus considered to have a ‘low probability of detection’ and ‘low probability of intercept’, virtually eliminating interference issues and making them very difficult to jam. This attribute is particularly crucial in conflict situations, where jamming radio communications could lead to dire consequences. And European companies have found solutions to what used to be laser’s Achilles’ heel – that it could not pass through atmospheric turbulence without degrading.

Given the current geopolitical volatility, DoD’s stated desire to preserve the resilience of its satellite systems, and the sophistication of European photonics, taking advantage of the investment and progress in optical communications systems from some of our strongest allies in Europe is the effective and efficient path to ensuring the U.S. maintains its edge as the foremost superpower. Another advantage of looking to Europe for defense technologies is that the U.S. can pre-empt any move towards protectionism – an ever-present temptation for the countries on the continent. However, the European Union has made ‘strategic autonomy’ one of its aims.

Though that aim of ‘strategic autonomy’ is worthwhile, it could inspire protectionist or semi-protectionist policies, which is one way to reduce dependence on other countries. This could be to the detriment, ultimately, of U.S.-European relations, including commercial relations. If the U.S. takes advantage of European research and development investment, then trade between these two great allied powers remains open. European businesses benefit in a way they wouldn’t otherwise. And the relationship is strengthened. Shifting geopolitical dynamics remind us of how important it is for the world’s free countries and regions to work together.

One reason for the technological and military sophistication of the U.S. is that it has always shown foresight and pragmatism in how it has procured services and solutions. When, before the turn of the century, the private sector began to show it could develop higher-quality technologies more cheaply and quicker than the DoD could, the U.S. welcomed it, and began to partner more aggressively with the private sector. With the world becoming more and more volatile, it’s essential that the U.S. shows a willingness to turn to new companies and new technologies, including those in Europe.

Jeff Huggins is President at Cailabs U.S. Inc., a maker a photonics products for the aeronautics, telecommunications, rarth-space laser communications, defense, and laser materials processing industries.

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