“The Sky Is The Limit”: Renewing France’s Space Capabilities


By Murielle Delaporte

When the French minister of the armed forces, Florence Parly, visited the heart of space technology in Toulouse last September, she stressed how much space has become over the past years a key domain for national security.

She noted that the Russian satellite Luch-Olymp had recently been engaged in not such a friendly action against Italian satellite Athena-Fidus, upon which French war against terrorism in Sub Saharan Africa relies in part.

“Yes, we are at risk.

Our communications, our military manoeuvers as well as our daily life are jeopardized if we do not react,” she said.

She also confirmed  that a working group had been tasked to prepare a new space strategy for France with a clear mandate : “ne vous interdisez rien!” which can be translated as “The sky is the limit.”

September is the month when the first of three third generation very high resolution optical observation satellites was delivered.

After six weeks of preparation in Kourou European Spaceport in French Guyana, it was successfully launched on a Soyuz launcher on December 19th.

This marks the beginning of a renewal of capabilities for France, and Europe as a whole, initiated in 2010, but which had been delayed by lack of investments and lack of a sense of urgency.

Indeed the military Earth observation “CSO ” satellites (CSO stands for  “Composante spatiale optique : are part of the MUSIS (Multinational Space-based Imaging System) program and are meant to replace Helios satellites.

As a reminder, Helios I was a product of a cooperation between France, Italy and Spain with a 2007 agreement granting access to imagery to the European Union (EU).

The second generation Helios II was enlarged to Belgium and Greece, while a similar agreement was signed in 2008 with the EU.

In addition, bilateral exchange  access agreements were signed between France and Italy – Helios II vs the Italian radar satellite Cosmo-Skymed (CSK) – and between France and Germany – Helios II vs the German radar satellite SAR-Lupe.

As far as CSO satellites are concerned, bilateral agreements have been signed in 2015 with Germany (SARha is to succeed to SAR-Lupe) and Sweden, as well as with Belgium and soon with Italy (CSG is to succeed CSK).

New European commitments and investments in 2015 – especially from Germany – allowed the planning for more than one CSO satellite. The goal is of course to boost a “Defense Space Europe” (“Europe spatiale de la defense”) and not only European space capabilities, the same way a true Defense of Europe is currently being revived in part as a response to President Trump’s push for a better burden-sharing in NATO.

A renewed sense of the need for sovereignty, autonomy and a resilient industrial base not seen in Europe since the end of the Cold War is indeed acting as a catalyzer so that the “best of Europe working together”, as Nicolas Chamussy, Executive vice-president of Space Systems of Airbus Defence & Space, refers to it, can thrive.

In the case of CSO, the French procurement agency DGA (Direction générale de l’armement) runs the program along with CNES, while Airbus Defence & Space, Thales Alenia Space, Thales Services, OHB (Orbitale Hochtechnologie Bremen), Capgemini and Arianespace are involved on the industrial side of things.

As Helios II was used for the needs of  “EUROFOR Chad” and as coordinated satellite-based targeting capabilities were at the heart of last April’s joint operation between the United States, the United Kingdom and France against Syria over its suspected chemical weapons attack, the need to bring European space capabilities up to date to be able to keep conducting military operations has been highlighted.

Increased accuracy and reduced revisiting time are enhanced with the recent CSO’s launching.

The fear of being left out from an ongoing space rivalries involving Russia, China and the United States as well as the necessity to protect what has become a key to today’s way of life – connecting to a phone, a computer, or running a GPS require the helps of 10 to 40 satellites per person every day in France alone! – have therefore lead the Macron government to accelerate the funding of a true XXIthcentury space policy.

Already doubled between 2008 and 2014 with 600 million Euros, the procurement budget for space is to reach 3.6 billion Euros in the next 2019-2025 Program Law.

Three more intelligence satellites are planned for 2020 and two more telecommunication satellites should be launched between 2020 and 2022.

The new French space strategy is focused on ways to enhance the resilience of French and European space assets and play in the same domain as the big powers, since any military strategy, and any future asset (whether Scorpion for the French Army or SCAF for the French Air Force) is fully dependable on space-based connectivity.

For the French Chief of staff of the Air Force, who took office last summer, that strategy is threefold:

  • Reinforce the French space detection capacity
  • Being able to identify and characterize a potential threat (i.e. improve SSA or Space Situational Awareness capabilities in particular through a space-based direct monitoring of space)
  • Propose solutions to avoid or respond to such threats.

In the opening speech of the 12th RACAM conference – a yearly meeting between French civilian and military aviation authorities – last October, General Philippe Lavigne referred to British Field Marshal Montgomery’s famous quote “if we lose the war in the air, we lose the war and we lose it quickly” to stress the importance of reinforcing the resilience of European space capabilities.

Enhancing the resilience of European space capabilities is indeed essential at two levels:
– first, in terms of sovereignty of the « Old Continent »;
– and second, as a crucial contribution to NATO’s future ability to resist increasing aggressive behaviors from adversaries in space and to monitor the growing activity of an ever larger number of players both public and private.

The featured photo shows a French CSO-1 reconnaissance satellite launching on a Russian-built Soyuz rocket on December 19, 2018.

*** A version of this article was first published by Breaking Defense on January 3, 2019.

Soyuz at the Guiana Space Centre is described by Wikipedia as follows:

Soyuz at the Guiana Space Centre (also known as Soyuz at CSG or Arianespace Soyuz) is an ongoing ESAprogramme for operating Soyuz-ST launch vehicles from Guiana Space Centre (CSG), providing medium-size launch capability for Arianespace to accompany the light Vega and heavy-lift Ariane 5

The Soyuz vehicle is supplied by the Russian Federal Space Agency with TsSKB-Progress and NPO Lavochkin, while additional components are supplied by Airbus,  Thales Group and RUAG.

The Arianespace Soyuz project was announced by the ESA in 2002. Cooperation with Russia began in two areas: construction of a launch site for Soyuz in CSG and development of the Soyuz launch vehicle modified for the Guiana Space Centre. A Programme Declaration was signed in 2003 and funding along with final approval was granted on 4 February 2005.

Initial excavation for the Ensemble de Lancement Soyouz (ELS; Soyuz Launch Complex) began in 2005, construction started in 2007, and the launch complex was completed in early 2011, allowing Arianespace to offer launch services on the modified Soyuz ST-B to its clients.

Two early flights, VS02 and VS04, and a recent flight, VS17, used the Soyuz ST-A variant.

Since 2011, Arianespace has ordered a total of 23 Soyuz rockets, enough to cover its needs until 2019 at a pace of three to four launches per year.