By Pierre Tran
Paris – Armed forces minister Florence Parly set out July 25 a strategy for boosting military capability in space, backed by a funding boost of €700 million ($780 million) and plans to field lasers to disable space-borne threats to French satellites.
Parly also said a space command will be stood up on Sept. 1 and placed under the orders of the air force, which will become the air and space force.
“Yes, we will develop powerful lasers,” she said in a keynote speech at Lyon airbase, central France. France may have lagged behind other nations but fully intended to catch up in this area, with the launch of an arms program dubbed “mastery of space,” she added.
” I hope we can as soon as possible equip our valuable satellites and spy nano-satellites to keep at a distance and, if necessary, blind those which have a tendency to come too close,” she said.
This was an ambitious plan but France would have the first capabilities in the present military budget law, with a full capacity by 2030, she said.
An extra €700 million will be earmarked for acquiring space capabilities, on top of the €3.6 billion set aside in the present military budget law, she said, adding that the spending increase for space will come from the overall budget, which remains unchanged.
That bid to increase and arm space assets means spending cuts in other programs, which will call for talks with the armed forces and procurement officials.
To underline the perceived need to bolster military space, Parly said the Russian satellite Luch Olymp had approached eight satellites of various nations since she revealed a year ago the space craft had closed in to listen to Athena-Fidus, a Franco-Italian spacecraft used for military communications.
There are already means — which are being developed — to “neutralize” or destroy satellites, she said.
“We know it; the shadow of threat is real,” she said.
The space command will be initially staffed by 220 personnel and be based in Toulouse, southern France.
The operations center will be backed up by a space lab which will have close ties to the DGA procurement office and CNES civil space agency. There will also a space academy to train staff.
France will revise the law to allow military space operations, Parly said, such as the US and Finland have already effected.
Alongside work on space weapons for an “active defense.” France will increase surveillance capabilities, she said. Parly made a call to Berlin to cooperate with Paris in a European drive, along with Rome.
“I particularly count on Germany to make up the beating heart of space surveillance,” she said.
France has the rare capability to detect and track satellites with its Graves and Satam radars, along with telescopes operated by CNRS and Ariane group, she said. There are plans to refine those, with the successor to the ground-based Graves system expected to detect satellites as small as a shoe box at a distance of 1,500 km.
CNRS is a research institute, while Ariane is an Airbus-Safran joint venture which builds the Ariane commercial space rocket.
Research agency Onera is working on increasing the power of Graves, a ground-based radar.
France will support CNRS’s plan to increase its Tarot telescope and Ariane’s Geotracker system, she said, adding that the ministry will ask for Airbus to provide greater earth observation.
Tarot consists of two robotic observatories, while Airbus has tracked satellites for the French joint space command on its Geotracker optical system since autumn 2017.
The ministry asked in September that cameras be fitted for self-defense on the Syracuse military telecommunications satellite, and that capability is being fitted, she said.
Thales Alenia Space and Airbus Defence and Space are building two Syracuse 4 satellites, and a third is to be added to the constellation.
France expects to have nano-satellites — small satellites between one and 10 kg — in 2023, which will be « patrol » craft providing eyes in space, she said. Thales plans to build a private constellation for earth observation, which France is following with close interest.
There are also studies on a very long range radar, which would be useful due to the growing missile threat, she said.
Besides prime contractors, the authorities are counting on companies such as Hemeria, Sodern, Cilas and others, in the drive for a stronger military space, she said.
“We are counting on you,” she said.
President Emmanuel Macron said July 13 the French air force would set up in September a space command, seen as needed to ensure “national security.”
“We will increase our knowledge of the situation in space, we will better protect our satellites, including in the active sense,” Macron told senior officers, industry chiefs and personnel at the traditional garden party on the eve of the Bastille Day parade. Parliamentarians Olivier Becht and Stéphane Trompille delivered in January a report to Parly, laying out the key issues for a space force.
There are more than 15 nations capable of space launch, with over 65 countries using satellites, the legislators said in a July 24 statement. There are some 1,500 satellites — with half of those American — and the total number is expected to rise above 8,000 by the end of the next decade, they said.
National and European sovereignty were at stake, with steps needed to be taken to protect civil and military satellites as these allowed France to see, avoid, respond and “neutralize” threats, they said. Transport, communications and banking could be at risk from attacks on French satellites.
Such threats made it “indispensable” for France to have a military space strategy and the funds needed to make it credible, they said.
To address those concerns, the parliamentary report called for boosting space surveillance both by satellites and ground-based equipment, including new radars for the Grave and Satam systems, telescopes, and a second Cosmos base to track space assets.
The aim is to know what objects are in space, their location, owner, trajectory and purpose. Space surveillance calls for French satellites to carry sensors which sound the alarm another spacecraft closes in, “satellite watch dogs” namely small satellites keeping watch on French space assets.
France should acquire means to disable space threats, said the parliamentary report, which recommended ” non-kinetic” means rather than anti-satellite missiles. The latter would scatter hundreds of thousands of space debris, which would add to the risk to other satellites and lead to “collateral damage.”
There may one day be” high intensity” war in space, with French satellites being knocked out temporarily or permanently.
That risk called for the means to pursue missions despite a disable satellite, the parliamentarians said. There are already cases of a foreign satellite approaching in an attempt to eavesdrop on a French spacecraft.
The scale of the task and financial need call on France to work with European allies rather than compete.
The report cites the “sterile competition” between Berlin and Paris on radar and optical surveillance satellites.
“France cannot exist in space without Europe,” the authors said.
Looking further ahead, the report sees the prospect of mining on distant planets, with greater interest in other-world resources as natural resources dwindle on earth and the cost of launch fall.
“The interest in space-based resources will grow,” the parliamentarians said.
Access to resources on earth and in space are economic interests which should be protected by military means, they said.
The featured photo shows French Defense Minister Florence Parly giving a speech as she attends a ceremony commemorating the 76th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv round-up in Paris on July 21, 2019. (Photo by AFP)
See also the following:
Editor’s Note: So by 2030 new space capabilities, by 2040 a new fighter and new Franco-Australian attack submarines in the 2030s.