While Russia started invading Ukraine, French Space Command was holding its annual exercise, called ASTERX 22. The ministry of armed forces then gave a presentation to the press about the command and the exercise.
Background on French military space policy
The presentation started with an introduction of French military space. To readers of this site, it will not be news as it has been extensively covered in previous articles. A quick summary is that France has adopted a military space policy which holds space to be a strategic domain, necessary to operations on the ground, and conflict is also likely to occur in space. Consequently, France has restructured its organizations, the Air Force becoming an Air and Space Force, with Space Command (Commandement De l’Espace, CDE) being created as a major command. CDE is a special command as it is both handling training and operations, and is also directly subordinated to the Chief of Staff.
Along with the new organization, new funds have been appropriated for space domain awareness and action in space. This is the ARES program (Action et Resilience dans l’ESpace). This comes in addition to the usual military Earth observation and communication programs, which have been recently recapitalized with new satellites.
Status of Space Command
The head of Space Command, General (Air) Michel Friedling, started his briefing by explaining where is CDE now, two years after its creation. On the organizational point of view, the relationship between CDE and the French Space Agency, CNES, has been formalized in a new governance agreement. CNES provides technical expertise, and will transfer some of it, especially related to satellites operations, to CDE.
The French law on space operations, which was initially put in place in 2008 and codifies what satellite operators are allowed to do and their liabilities, has also been modified. Now, the rules normally applicable can be ignored when national defense is at stake. Rules violations that damage national defense can be punished by up to three years in jail, and part of the text provides that the control of space-based services and of commercial satellites can be transferred to the state, even without the approval of the owner if it is an emergency. The state then becomes liable for damages caused by operation of the satellite. If the owner refuses, they face up to five years in jail.
This a very strong provision, and would allow for an integrated space maneuver by the CDE, either to give additional support to operations on the ground by commandeering observation or communications satellites (which not so likely as a commercial arrangement would probably be found instead), or by directly taking control of satellites and putting them in defensive or offensive positions during in-space operations.
Regarding the capabilites of French satellites, the general showed a slide summarizing them. As explained above, most of them have been recently renewed. Two CSO optical/thermal observation satellites have been launched to replace the aging Helios 2 satellites, with a third CSO (partly paid for and operated by Germany) to be launched soon. There will be a delay since it was scheduled to be launched from French Guyana on a Soyuz rocket, which is no longer an option. In Signal Intelligence, after several prototype satellites, a first operational capability has been reached with the CERES triplet.
Some of these capabilities are exchanged with allies, firstly with Germany and Italy to get SAR imagery from SAR-Lupe and its successor SARah and COSMOS-SKYMED generations 1 and 2 respectively. Commercial imagery is also acquired from the “trusted operator” (an official terminology) that is Airbus, with the recently launched very high resolution Pleiades Neo probably being the most important resource.
For communications, the Syracuse 3 system is being replaced by two satellites, Syracuse 4A and 4B. 4A is currently orbit raising to GEO. A third, Syracuse 4C, optimized for aerial connectivity, will be launched later. France also operates Athena-Fidus jointly with Italy, and has access to the Italian Sicral 2 satellite. As in observation, some capabilities are acquired from trusted operators for less critical services.
The second axis of efforts is the ARES program, which includes Space Domain Awareness, active and passive in-space defense, and command and control (C2) tools. The schedule is that a first space C2, an in-space action demonstrator satellite (called YODA, built by Hemeria), and a new Space Situational Awareness radar replacing the current Graves radar (more on that in a previous article) will be available by 2024.
The slide above contains interesting information: EGIDE is the active defense program. Next to it, “Moyens Optiques SYR 4” is the proximity cameras carried by the Syracuse 4 satellites. The Russian Luch-Olymp satellite and some unknown objects approached Syracuse satellites in the past and France is wary of that. Below, the images of CSO is a reminder that these extremely high resolution optical satellites can perform sat-to-sat imaging, and thus can identify other satellites and retrieve precise technical information on them. For instance, they could give an estimate of the resolution of a foreign observation satellite by measuring the diameter of its optics. The Northstar constellation is a planned commercial constellation that is to provide SSA services from space.
On the right are the ground-based optical assets. TAROT is a network of telescopes from the French Ministry of Research, with a share of the time used for SSA. Geotracker is a commercial network operated by Arianegroup. More details on both are available here. Graves and its successor have already been covered, and LeoLabs is a company that has a network of SSA radars all over the world. Finally, WeTrack is a service from Safran Data Systems that precisely locates satellites based on their electromagnetic emissions.
The general underlined that contracts with commercial operators such as WeTrack and Geotracker are critical, as they bring efficiency and flexibility to complement state assets.
CDE and CNES have also set up a lab called LISA (Armies space innovation lab) that identifies and support projects interesting to the ministry, from traditional space manufacturers and also from new space companies. He took three projects as examples: MIL-IoT for military connected objects, ExoOps for simulation of adversary maneuvers, and Nemesis for High Performance Computing relating to space C2.
Cooperations are a critical part of CDE’s missions. The CSpO partnership with anglo-saxon countries and Germany is especially important, as well as bilateral cooperations with the historical partners of France in military space (mainly Germany and Italy as explained above, but Belgium, Spain and Sweden are also part of the CSO program). The creation of norms of behaviour on the responsible use of space is also a focus, and is done through work in the UN.
One of the achievements of CDE is that it has been selected to host the NATO center of excellence for space. It will be colocated next to the CDE’s headquarters in Toulouse. For now 14 nations will join it, and this number will probably increase soon. Initial capability will be in 2022, with the first foreign officers joining CDE’s temporary building, and full capability along with the final building in 2025.
The Toulouse site of the command is destined to grow by 50 persons per year, with transfers from predecessor units located near Paris for observation satellites and near Lyon for SSA. Training of this personnel is the main priority, through exercises and real operations. CDE also delivers an initial space training to give a quick overview of military space capabilities to other relevant personnel of the ministry. Interestingly, CDE is very flexible in its hiring, with some civilian engineers being recruited as contract officers in order to gain expertise. CNES provides training so that CDE can perform orbital operations and orbital analysis with military personnel. The command also organizes a yearly hackaton to find good ideas and people.
Training exercises are mostly the three space exercises organized by the United States, as well as the French ASTERX exercise. The first ASTERX in 2021 was noted by competitors all over the world. The 2022 edition is more complex and took a year to prepare.
ASTERX 22 aimed at training military operators, and at testing and experimenting Command and Control organizations and processes. It also helps sensitize other actors, within the state or outside, to military space issues and train how to operate with them. For instance, the French Armament Directorate (DGA) is part of the exercise, and feedback from the exercise will help define the future systems to be procured.
For the exercise, an orbital population of 10 000 objects is simulated, and 16 events covering all the spectrum of threats are inserted. A mission net connecting all the tools and actors, including Cyber Command, Military Intelligence (DRM, which tasks the observation satellites), the military communications directorate (DIRISI, which tasks communication satellites), CNES, trusted operators and foreign actors (4 other nations involved plus the European External Action Service, which handled a simulated incident affecting Galileo). This is a wider scope compared to last year. A new addition was the Commercial Integration Cell, in which the information provided by commercial trusted operators is collected and summarized.
The exercise simulated 24 days in 6 actual days, and was a success. 27 foreign delegations came to watch it, from 25 countries plus EU and NATO. The envisioned command and control organization was validated, relevant actors were sensitized to a common set of tool, processes and vocabulary, new concepts such as the commercial cell were tested and foreign partners realized the importance of space operations.
Q: Did CDE observe any space events related to the war in Ukraine?
A: Yes, we are keeping a constant watch along with our allies. What is public is that we observed the ViaSat network was attacked, a virus rendered tens of thousands of terminals unusable. Access to space is also a topic, as the refusal of the Russian to launch the Oneweb satellites from Baikonour shows. In the end, Oneweb cancelled their remaining launches from Baikonour. For us, this impacts the launch of CSO 3.
Q: Does France refuse to develop kinetic ASAT?
A: Yes, we have been clear from the start, kinetic ASAT are a red line, it is an irresponsbile use of space as it creates multiple long-lived debris. We are looking for other ways, as the Minister explained in various speeches, mostly in directed energy, of which laser is one aspect. It is too early to tell what we will use in the end though.
Q: Can you expand on the “orbital bodyguard” satellites of the YODA program? Will we use a fleet of them?
A: YODA is not a program, it is a demonstrator. It is extremely important, it will help us acquire skills that neither CDE nor CNES have regarding orbital maneuvers, in geostationary orbit for a start. There are other demonstrations under study. It will also refine our thinking for payloads, command and control, and strategic signaling. We will introduce around 2030 an operational in-orbit capability, but I do not know what it looks like yet, neither in numbers nor in capabilities. We have to wait for the return of experience on the demonstrator, which will reach orbit in 2024, as well as the results of the studies on the payloads and the overall concept studies.