French generals discuss military space

The French space agency, CNES (Centre National d’Études Spatiales, National Center for Space Studies), organizes every month CNES Café, a sort of mini-conference, in a Parisian restaurant. A space professional is invited, and explains his or her work, then a Q&A session with the audience takes place. Plus there are one-of-a-kind musical interludes by a pianist/poet who sings a few rhymes about the topic (it’s harder than it sounds).

This month, the topic was “Military Space Issues: Observation, Eavesdropping, Communications”. So it is a perfect fit for an article here. CNES will eventually upload a podcast of the event in a few months, but it will be in French, so I think a summary here is a good resource for those interested in the subject who do not speak French or do not want to wait for the podcast.

General (R) de Roquefeuil (left), military adviser to the head of the French space agency, and General Breton (right), head of the French joint command for space

The first speaker was General Henri de Roquefeuil, a retired aviation general, now serving as military adviser to the head of CNES. CNES has the peculiarity of handling both civilian and military space programs. It acts as the center of expertise on space for the French defense procurement agency, the DGA. As such, Gen. de Roquefeuil has the task of coordinating the activities between CNES, DGA and the military’s Joint Chief (CEMA, Chef d’État-Major des Armées).

The second speaker was General Jean-Pascal Breton, head of the French Joint Command for Space (JSC, or CIE in French for Commandement Interarmées de l’Espace). CIE manages military space policy, parts of the procurement process and the space situational awareness activities, and also the use of space assets in military operations. For a more detailed view on JSC, a previous article on Gen. Breton’s hearing at the French National Assembly can be found in this article.

So the talk gathered two of the highest military space officials in France, in a casual environment. Watching them debate space policy and answering questions while the audience was having a few beers was a remarkable moment and gives credit to CNES’s public outreach efforts.

Thales’ next-generation Syracuse IV hardened military communications satellite

The military does not need satellites

Gen. de Roquefeuil started the talk with a bold statement: the military does not need satellites. He went on to explain that what the military actually needs is the capabilities provided by satellites. For some of these capabilities, such as weather forecasting, there are civilian satellites and analysts providing data, and the role of the military is just to buy that data, and in some cases do a little bit of forecasting for themselves, since only them are interested in the weather in the middle of Sahel or Afghanistan.

He also explained that for Positioning, Navigation & Timing, the French military owns no satellites. It uses the signals from the GPS constellation and supports the defense-specific aspects of the European Galileo constellation, but does no directly operate the satellites.

Then he discussed Earth observation satellites, for which military, dual-use and commercial satellites exist. Why? Because the military has very specific requirements: performance (for instance resolution, or thermal imaging), reactive tasking (when they need images, they need them fast), and data integrity (they must be sure that the data is not tampered with). Military satellites answer to all those 3 requirements. Dual-use satellites have lower performance, but can still be reactive and ensure data integrity. He took the example of the dual-use Pleiades constellation, which has been built in partnership between CNES and industry, and provides French defense with a priority over 50 images/day out of the 900 produced by the pair of satellites. This ensures timely access to data, especially in hot zones such has Syria where everybody wants to gather intelligence at the same time.


He also told an enlightening story about why data integrity is needed: in 2003, during the run up to the second Gulf war, the US administration shared satellite pictures to prove that Irak was building weapons of mass destruction. France used its own Helios spy satellite to take photographs of the same place, and realized by comparing the two that the American had altered their imagery to deceive the French. Based on this, then-French president Chirac decided to stay out of the coalition to invade Irak, and to oppose the war at the United Nations. It prevented France from joining a conflict with consequences that are still setting the Middle East ablaze.

He closed his remarks on imagery by saying France is launching its newest CSO optical reconnaissance satellite at the end of the year, and that it will bring tremendous capabilities. However, the analysts are already overwhelmed by data, so it is necessary to use machine learning tools to reduce their workload.

Afterwards, he mentioned signal intelligence capabilities will be improved with the first operational satellite system, CERES, being planned for a launch in 2020. He also stressed the importance of satellite communications, saying satellite antennas are the first thing to be deployed in operations.

The CERES SIGINT triplet. Their pyramid shape is characteristic of a Thales Alenia Space EliteBus platform


General Breton

Gen. Breton presented his command. He touched upon launch vehicles, saying that he is concerned SpaceX will threaten France’s independent access to space. He emphasized the amount of public money going into SpaceX, and Gen. de Roquefeuil jumped in to say CNES is confident in Ariane 6’s success, but is investing in technologies for reusable rockets. However, it is not possible to do everything at the same time so reusable rockets will come after Ariane 6.

As in his parliamentary hearing, gen. Breton focused on Space Situational Awareness, saying he is concerned about the “less pacific” inspection of his systems by foreign satellites.


The time for audience questions had come. The audience mixed space professionals with students and retirees, all of them being space enthusiasts.

Q: What about optical communications?

A (Breton): France has developed prototypes in the past [He is referring to the LOLA aircraft-to-satellite laser communication tests] . I am very interested in the bandwidth optical links provide, since it would enable near-real-time reconnaissance capabilities [by having the observation satellites send their data to a relay satellite in a high orbit, like Airbus does for its Pleiades Neo constellation]. However for military communications, deployable ground-to-space lasers are affected by weather, so they are less useful. Plus it would mean procuring completely different user terminals.

Q: What do you think about orbital bombardment, by placing weapons in orbit?

A (de Rocquefeuil): Very cynically, it is not cost-effective in practice: why spend energy to put something in orbit, then spend energy again to have it come down? Besides, the Outer Space Treaty bans placing weapons of mass destruction in space.

Q: How is the Outer Space Treaty enforced?

A (Breton): First of all, the cost of space systems restricts their use to the wealthiest countries. The visibility of attacks in space also acts as a deterrent, as a kinetic attack produces a lot of debris. But overall, there is no policeman in space.

Q: Is it possible to put proximity alerts on satellites?

A (Breton): Our satellites need to be protected. I won’t go into the details of how.

Q: What’s is the relationship between GPS and Galileo?

A (Breton): It is complimentary, even the US want to use both systems. The American position has evolved a lot: they used to be dead set against it, but are now concerned by GPS jamming so they appreciate the additional resilience Galileo brings.

Q (by me): Could you talk about the use of smallsat constellations for military use? Also, CNES has recently announced a partnership with India to work on a constellation of small satellites for maritime surveillance in the Indian ocean, could you add details?

A (Breton): France is lagging behind in this area, we have not developed this sector enough in the military area. The miniaturization of components allows for a big size reduction, up to a thousand times, which leads to a reduction without comparison of launch and satellite costs. It’s a capability we have to set up and keep working on.

(de Roquefeuil): CNES has small satellite projects, but startups are a more appropriate environment for that. Ideally, we would only buy services from private actors.

(Breton): Universities and engineering schools are also getting involved, and I am very favorable to that, it is something Space Command has to develop.

(de Roquefeuil): Regarding the maritime surveillance constellation, it is part of a strategic partnership with India. It is still in concept development phase, we are envisioning optical, radar and AIS satellites. It has military implication, as maritime surveillance watches over civilian and military ships.

Q: Do you have an idea what happened to the American Zuma satellite?

A (Breton): I won’t go into details, but I can tell you we looked at the orbit it was launched in and saw nothing, so that’s coherent with the stories about it reentering with the second stage.

Q: What are the limits of satellite observation? Does it enable to watch everything all the time?

A (Breton): Orbital mechanics constrain the acquisition opportunities for a given satellite, but with the total number of satellites in orbit there is always one passing over each point of the Earth each day. Sunlight is a limiting factor for optical satellites, as most commercial satellites do not have far infrared capabilities [French military satellites do]. Tasking conflicts are also a problem for commercial. Finally weather is a big problem for optical observation: during the Irma hurricane, we could no use optical satellites at all. The staggering amount of data from observation satellites also means we have to introduce deep learning technologies to help analyst sort it out.


2 thoughts on “French generals discuss military space”

  1. Thank you.Le 17 mars 2018 9:32 PM, "" <> a écrit :

    gosnold posted: "The French space agency, CNES (Centre National d'Études Spatiales, National Center for Space Studies), organizes every month CNES Café, a sort of mini-conference, in a Parisian restaurant. A space professional is invited, and explains his or her work, the"


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