France’s new space defense strategy

Following last year’s announcement by the minister of the Armed Forces of changes in the French space defense strategy, the different options have been studied and the decisions taken by the President of the French Republic. The minister has disclosed some of the contents of this new policy in a speech on July 25, 2019. It made headlines with some journalists writing future French military satellites would carry machine gun, so here is my summary and analysis. The full text, translated from the original French, is also below.



The Joint Command for Space is dissolved and replaced by an Space Command within the Air Force. This command will take over all space-related activities. Previously, space situational awareness was in the Air Force, the Joint Space Command dealt with procurement and policy, and the comms directorate of the Ministry managed military communication satellites.

The new space command will also take over the control of military Earth observation satellites, which is currently done by the French space agency CNES.

Changes to space law

France has a law on space operations, which applies mostly to commercial launch and services providers, but is apparently too restrictive for the future military space operations. The government will propose changes to this law, which will probably be accepted by the parliament.

New space awareness and counterspace capabilities

Currently France relies for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) space situational awareness (SSA) on the Graves space surveillance radar, which can only detect objects larger than 1 square meter, and on two telescope networks for higher orbits: the TAROT network owned by a civilian research agency, and the Geotracker network owned by ArianeGroup.

Per the speech, Graves will be replaced to be able to detect cubesats in LEO. The telescope networks will be expanded upon, and there is some interest in SSA from space. The minister also announced a long-range ballistic early warning radar demonstrator will be built, which could have SSA applications. Imaging radars able to take resolved pictures of satellites are also envisioned, but those are probably separate has they typically use X band or higher, whereas early warning radars use lower frequencies. Besides, Germany already has this capability with the TIRA and soon to be completed GESTRA radars, and the speech specifically called for cooperation with Germany in the SSA domain, so this will probably not move past design studies.

Another interesting development is that the “bodyguard” nanosatellites presented at the recent Paris airshow will indeed be deployed, in 2023. It makes a lot of sense to deploy those, as they can be deployed around legacy satellites with no self-protection capabilities in their design, and can be replaced more frequently than a real satellite. In the scenario presented at the airshow, they were used to take pictures to prove foreign interference on the defended satellite. They might also be used to take high-resolution pictures of suspicious satellites which park themselves very close in the GEO belt, to see what their payload is.

The speech mentioned that those bodyguard or the main satellites might carry high-power lasers for self-defense. This is probably posturing, as small satellites would have limited power, and no room for large optics, so the laser would be short-ranged. It makes much more sense to use lasers to attack LEO satellites from the ground, as was recently demonstrated by the ONERA aerospace lab, as this would allow to retaliate by attacking high-value assets and not be restricted to repelling attackers (which will not work againt direct-ascent ASAT).

The added capabilities amount to 700 million €, which will be found by delaying other planned programmes.

Full speech

Madam Prefect,
Ladies and gentlemen elected officials,
Mr. Delegate General for Armaments,
Mr. Chief of the Air Force Staff,
Mr. President of CNES,
Mr. President of ONERA,
Ladies and gentlemen, general officers,
Ladies and gentlemen, Presidents and Chief Executive Officers,
Ladies and gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen,
Dear friends,
The images were blurry, colorless and yet unforgettable. Fascinated, sometimes moved or seized by an unavoidable hint of disappointment, thousands of people all over the world are witnessing first-hand the first step of man on the Moon. A new page is about to be written: it is July 21, 1969, almost 50 years ago, to the day.

In the 1960s, space was a new frontier. And I have one conviction: today, it is now the last frontier.

The last technological frontier we must cross. The last area to invest. Our armies are smart and they adapt. They have evolved as technology has changed. Man has built planes, we have created the Air Force. Man has taken over the cyber field, we have created a command dedicated to cyber threats. Man dreams of artificial intelligence, we have equipped our armies with an artificial intelligence strategy. Today, our allies and opponents are militarizing space. And as the time for resilience becomes shorter and shorter, we must act. We must be ready. Because tomorrow is already yesterday.
The proof, in one example: a year ago, I told you about a space spy, the indiscreet Luch Olymp, a Russian satellite. I can’t resist giving you some news: he has since left his business card to 8 new satellites from different countries.

Satellites spied on, scrambled, or dazzled; the means to hinder, neutralize or destroy enemy space capabilities exist and are developing: we know that the shadow of the threat is very real.

In addition to this creeping arsenalisation of space, there are the risks associated with the democratisation of access to space, the New Space. I am thinking in particular of the companies in Silicon Valley that are seizing space, sometimes in disregard of the authorization of the States to which they belong. This was demonstrated by the launch of nanosatellites by an American startup in 2018, despite being told not to. The poorly controlled emergence of these new, mainly private players, who are promising more and more services, images, data rates or applications using space-based data, is certainly promising, but also carries undeniable dangers.

Space pollution is one of them: the multiplication of debris in space creates considerable risks of collision for our satellites. And space must not become a new Wild West. It is necessary for States to be able to control risks. To this end, having a strengthened space defence is absolutely essential. Because it is our independence that is at stake. It is our freedom of appreciation, access and action in space that is at stake.

And it is our whole daily life that depends on it. A smartphone uses dozens of satellites every day, depending on the applications involved. And I’m not talking about the daily lives of our soldiers. Communicating, observing or geolocating by satellite are essential actions for the conduct of military operations. Operating through space and in space is our horizon.

And that is why the President of the Republic wanted to provide France with a real space defence strategy. I am therefore very proud to be here today to present to you our new space strategy, which I will outline in three areas.

First, a major space command will be created on 1 September to address military space issues in the context of strategic disruptions, to develop a doctrine of operations in space, and to implement our space assets.

I would like to have a word for you in front of this crowd of airmen. Since France has been involved in space, it is your army that takes care of our capabilities, it is your army that offers us the majority of space specialists. And these specialists, we must continue to attract them, retain them and help them progress. In addition, space is the natural extension of the airspace to which you are accustomed.

This is why this great command will be placed under the authority of the Air Force, which will therefore become the Air and Space Force. He will succeed the Joint Space Command, and I would also like to pay tribute here to the staff who have made him grow. With 9 years of existence to its credit, this command has successfully embodied and carried forward our ambition in the military space sector, to the point of becoming a referent of national authorities and an actor recognized by its foreign counterparts. If it is called upon tomorrow to give up its place, it is not because of a lack of results, but because the ambitions we have in the long term are gigantic and call for renewal.
A renewal that will build on the historical units of excellence in this field that France already has: here in Lyon, Toulouse, Paris, Creil and elsewhere. The role of the Space Command will be to federate and coordinate all the resources devoted to the space defence domain. And it is in Toulouse, a city at the heart of the French space ecosystem, that the operational centre for space command will be based. Toulouse, at the crossroads of ideas and innovations, must make it possible to develop synergies: with private actors, with the CNES of course, from which we can benefit from all the expertise; and we will need it.

Ultimately, the centre must conduct all our space operations, under the orders of the Chief of the Defence Staff, in conjunction with the CPCO, the Operations Planning and Conduct Centre, in the same way as all our operations.

A whole space campus will be set up in Toulouse: around the operations centre, there will be a Space Lab, an innovative defence space laboratory in close collaboration with the DGA and CNES. And we will also create in France a Space Academy to bring together all the ministry’s training courses, encourage vocations and promote space careers: one day, wanting to become a space general is no longer a fantasy, it will now be a credible ambition.

Because Jean Monnet taught us that while nothing is sustainable without institutions, nothing is possible without people: the space command will therefore immediately be equipped with a team of 220 people, which will gradually increase in power over the duration of the military programming law.

Secondly, we will have to make changes to our legal environment. As you know, our armies are profoundly legalistic, and there can be no revolution in our doctrine without changes in the law.

For the time being, military space operations follow the same rules as private actors’ space operations. At a time when space is becoming a major national security issue, this must change: the law must therefore evolve, in full respect of international law, to incorporate the specificity of military space operations, as has already been done in the United States or Finland. A draft bill to amend the legal framework established by the Law of 3 June 2008 on space operations will be proposed shortly, and will be guided by two principles: to free our armies and to protect our capabilities.

So, when I talk about liberating our armies, I mean that they must be given sufficient leeway to fully protect our defence interests, to preserve the interests of the Nation.
I have therefore decided that the Ministry of the Armed Forces will assume the function of space operator. If we want to be able to conduct genuine military space operations, we must develop autonomy of action.

And to pilot is to bear the responsibility. This means that we must be able to take control of our satellites, which are currently operated by our fellow engineers and technicians at CNES. And I would like to express to them all the gratitude that our Armies have for the skills and excellence they demonstrate every day in the accomplishment of their mission. We need you today and we will need you tomorrow.

Protecting our capabilities is vital, especially in the face of the rise of a phenomenon such as New Space.

We are currently working with the SGDSN and CNES on ways to regulate emerging commercial space activities. I am thinking in particular of the activities of surveillance of space, whether from the ground or from space, or the interception of electromagnetic signals from space.

The challenge will be to find a balance between protecting national interests, the competitiveness of our companies, which we obviously want to preserve, and maintaining France’s attractiveness.

Protecting our capabilities does not only apply to our military activities, but also to our most strategic civilian interests. We need to reflect on civilian space objects whose surveillance or protection would need to be entrusted to the Ministry of the Armed Forces, given their importance for the functioning of the State and the country.

I have already said it and I therefore repeat it here: we are by no means engaged in an arms race. Our priority is to pursue our diplomatic efforts, in particular with our European partners, but more broadly with all interested States, to ensure the peaceful use of space.

Thirdly, we must improve our space defence capabilities. Because space is also a new front to defend. And we must be ready.

As you know, the Military Programming Act has the ambition to renew all our major space capabilities. This renewal is essential, but we must aim even higher. That is why I have decided to launch a new weapons programme called “Space Control”. Quite simply. It will integrate two components: surveillance and active defence.

Our first responsibility is to protect our resources in space. They are essential to our operations, they are essential to the functioning of our economy and our society. We need to monitor our satellites more and better. We need to know perfectly the objects that surround them, that cross their paths. We need to be able to detect and attribute suspicious, unfriendly and even hostile acts to our military satellites and space interests. France is now one of the few nations with its own space surveillance capabilities, thanks to the Graves and Satam radars as well as the telescopes of the CNRS and Ariane Group. And it is a source of pride. Tomorrow, we will use even more sophisticated means and services. The successor to Graves will have to be designed to detect satellites the size of a shoe box at a distance of 1500 kilometres. ONERA, whose qualities and excellence I know, has all my confidence to take up this challenge.

We will support the densification and network of the CNRS Tarot telescopes. We will use Ariane Group’s Geotracker network to obtain more images of the geostationary orbit.
And we will explore the capabilities of satellite imaging radars to better classify them.
We will use Airbus’ ground observation services to benefit from the best possible revisit. Last September, I asked that our Syracuse satellites be equipped with cameras for self-protection. These capabilities are being integrated and I welcome them. But we will not stop there.

I would like us to equip ourselves with nano-satellites for patrolling from 2023 onwards. Dreadful little detectors that will be the eyes of our most precious satellites. We will ensure that we have space surveillance capabilities from space, from private constellations. I know that Thales has ambitions in this area, and we will be very attentive to them.

We will test a very long-range radar demonstrator, a valuable tool in the face of the growing missile threat.

France has its independence, and it wants it. But it cannot be isolated in this new area of conflict. We will thus have to build with our European partners a future common capacity to know the spatial situation, sufficiently precise to allow the detection and identification of very small objects, including small debris. And I am particularly counting on Germany to be a beating heart of space surveillance.

With these new surveillance capabilities, we will be able to organize our active defence. And here, I want to be precise: active defence is not an offensive strategy, what it is about is self-defence. It is, when a hostile act has been detected, characterized and attributed, able to respond in an appropriate and proportionate manner, in accordance with the principles of international law.

If our satellites are threatened, we will consider dazzling those of our opponents. We reserve the time and means of the response: this may involve the use of high-power lasers deployed from our satellites or from our patrol nano-satellites.

Because yes, we will develop high-power lasers. This is an area in which France has fallen behind. But we will meet it, and I hope that we will be able to equip our most valuable satellites or our nano-satellites as soon as possible to keep at a distance and, if necessary, dazzle those who might be tempted to approach it too close.

Then, as you will have noticed, the programme is vast and ambitious. It will focus all our energies so that we have the first capabilities required during the current military programming law for full capability anticipated by 2030.

And for that, we will need you, ladies and gentlemen industrialists. In addition to the great prime contractors, we are fortunate to have companies such as Hemeria, Sodern, Cilas and many others. I’m counting on you.

Of course, all this has a cost. To limit the budgetary consequences of these new space capabilities, we will be able to access them either by purchasing services from trusted operators or by pooling our resources with our European partners. I am thinking in particular of Germany or Italy. Doing better together by reducing the cost is also one of the virtues of European defence.

The effort is significant, and as the President of the Republic has stressed, financial resources will be made available to enable us to achieve our ambitions.

Over the duration of this LPM, this effort represents an additional €700 million, in addition to the €3.6 billion already planned for the complete renewal of our satellite capacity. And these new investments will be made within the envelope provided for by the Military Programming Act.

But our efforts to renew our military satellites and deploy our new space strategy would be in vain if these assets remained grounded. And so I would like to stress once again the crucial importance of our ability to access space: it is essential to our strategic autonomy, it is essential in our place at the forefront of space powers. This cutting-edge capacity is based on a unique know-how, acquired over the past decades with the line of launchers that today is our strength: I am of course referring to Ariane. This success, which perfectly illustrates what Europe is capable of when it does so with constancy and determination, will continue tomorrow, I have no doubt, when Ariane 6 opens the doors of heaven to our future space assets, both civil and military.

It is always with great pride that I contemplate a place that brings together so many talents, so many different actors united by the same objective and who have their eyes fixed on the same horizon. The independence of France, the defence of our fellow citizens, the future of our armies is what, I believe, brings us together today. And I want to thank each and every one of you for all the energy you put into it. Our armies, of course, the Directorate General of Armaments, our industrial partners, as well as CNES and ONERA.

We are one and the same team. The French space team. France, the third largest space power, we believe in it. We were among the pioneers. And we will be at the forefront.
Long live the Air Force and Space Agency!

Long live the Republic! Long live France!

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