France’s Space Commander shares lessons learned from Ukraine and future plans

The defense commission of the French National Assembly is having a series of hearings about the lessons learned so far from the Ukraine war, and has finally published the exchange with the head of Space Command.

Space Command (CDE, Commandement De l’Espace), is relatively new in itself, having been created in 2019 following a deep rethinking of France’s space policy. Previous articles on this site retrace this story, with the first public unveiling of the high-level policy being done in 2018 by Defense Minister Parly, followed in 2019 by the publishing of the new space defense strategy. After the command was stood up, it started implementing this strategy and shared details on it in 2020 to a wide audience.

Threat assessment from the Space Defense Strategy

However, CDE was not created out of nothing. It inherits most of the responsibilities and assets of the late Joint Space Command (CIE, Commandement Interarmées de l’Espace), which dates back to 2010. A major change is that CIE was placed directly under the Joint Chief of Staff (CEMA), and handled mostly procurement, while CDE is now part of the Air Force (renamed Air & Space Force) though it still also reports to the Joint Chief, and handles both procurement and operations. All the previously independent but space-related entities in the armed forces are now part of CDE.

The situation

CDE is now headed by its second commander ever, General (Air) Adam. He started the hearing by describing the overall landscape, with an increased number of launches, and an exploding number of satellites in orbit due to the recently deployed constellations. He underscored that space is critical to the economy, but also to the armed forces, by providing communications, intelligence, and positioning services. They are especially critical in large infrastructure-poor regions like Sahel, but also in regions where infrastructure is denied during a conflict.

All this explains that foreign powers have a more and more hostile behaviour in space, stressing the space surveillance capabilities. The threats also include their work on cyber attacks, ground-to-space ASAT missiles, and directed energy weapons like lasers to blind satellites.

The answer

As an answer, CDE is regrouping all its personnel in Toulouse, where the French Space Agency CNES and large space companies like Airbus Space are located. It is also increasing its headcount from 320 to 470 personnel. This means a new organization, new procedures, new training and new offices right in front of CNES. All of this should be delivered in 2025. In addition, the NATO Centre of Excellence for Space will be located there. Every year, CDE is also running the AsterX exercise with foreign and commercial partners.

French military satellites, and allied ones with direct access

Speaking of partners, their are very important in the strategy. Most western nations have created a space command of some form or are doing so, and for some capabilities like space surveillance or early warning , there is a strong reliance on partners. For instance, for ballistic missile launch detection, France is relying on information provided by the USA, but there is work among European nations to develop technologies to do so and counter an attack. This is expensive, so pooling funding across several countries is paramount. Other forms of cooperation exist, like sharing data from observation satellites, since various Europeans countries have their own satellites, or sharing satellite communications capabilities, to handle excess traffic or as a fallback in case a French satellite is taken out of action. More on this later in the article.


The Russians signalled their determination in November 2021, by blowing up one of their satellites with a missile, right after a visit by CIA Director and former Ambassador to Russia William Burns. The February 2022 offensive started in space, with a cyber attack on the user terminals of the Viasat communication satellites, which the Ukrainian government used. The attack also caused collateral damage in offshore wind farms in Germany, destroying more than 3000 terminals overall.

The Viasat 2 civilian communication satellite. The space segment is not the most interesting target.

During the following phases, the Russian did not use ASAT missiles, probably in part because they would have needed a lot of them and it would have created a lot of debris. On their side, the Ukrainians restored their communications with Starlink, which, although not designed for military use, has worked well. The Russian can detect emissions from the Starlink ground segment but they cannot counteract the capability fully, leading to them declaring it is unacceptable for civilian operators to be part of the conflict, along with various other threats. The dual-use aspect of satellites also extends to observation: lots of countries have bilateral data exchange with Ukraine, and Kiev is also leveraging commercial capabilities in optical, radar and signal intelligence

Nevertheless, we have to keep in mind that the future conflicts will not be exactly like Ukraine, though we need to study it to predict what they will look like.

Future priorities

Like for Ukraine, commercial space capabilities are of interest to us, and we have to be able to use them too, and exploit the strengths of New Space, for instance large proliferated comms constellations. In this area, we need to use intelligently the IRIS2 project of the EU commission. We are also trying to improve our revisit capabilities for observation as part of the CHRONOS project. But we will keep investing into extremely high resolution optical satellites and nuclear-hardened SATCOM, which are not really available from civilian newspace developments. We have to do both.

We also have to be able to address what happens in the high-altitude airspace, be it balloons or hypersonic glides [The French Air Force recently had a seminar on this topic] .

Patroller/bodyguard satellite concept. It seems to have a stereo optic for ranging and a high-resolution one (or a laser?)

All of this might lead us to adjust our in-space action strategy, and deploy patroller satellites faster. The YODA demonstrator will be launched in 2024 or 2025, but will not be a full operational capability. Our “active defense” program should be in orbit at the end of the decade, and will be a good way to defend ourselves and do strategic signalling. We cannot be late. It is planned for the geostationary orbit, but we are considering extending it to low Earth Orbit. Like cyber, space is a bit of a gray zone, with military capabilities hiding behind civilian ones, and to make it more transparent and less gray we need those patrollers combined with surveillance sensors. Also, there is no reason to not use that grayness ourselves.

In an hypothetical conflict where France would attack first, my advice would be to go after enemy space capabilities, not only in space but also on the ground, targeting for instance command centers and ground stations. This can be done in many ways including with cyber attacks, which do not create debris and in which we can deny our involvement. Lasers are also an option, but they might create some debris. They can dazzle or even damage an enemy optical sensor, and from the ground are not too complicated to build, it is within our reach. We have ongoing demonstrations, we need to think about operational systems.

We are following the developments in debris removal satellites. Constellations raise the question of how to retire dead satellites, but that is costly. The Chinese have sent the Shijian-21 satellite in geostationary orbit to move one if their dead satellites to graveyard orbit, freeing one of their spots in the GEO belt in the process. Maneuvering satellites are also a concern for us, like the Russian “Russian doll” satellites, which release sub satellites which in turn release things looking a lot like missiles. I don’t see how they could explain these are not for military use.

Simulated adversary satellites closing in on the French Syracuse comsat during an exercise

For Space Domain Awareness, we should also include some reliance on commercial sensors, including on-orbit sensors, to complement ours and gain speed. Regarding our own assets, they are getting old, we need to see more objects and smaller ones, and cover more space. Our capabilities are small compared to the US but they are complementary, so they like our data and that creates interesting partnerships.

For launchers, we need independent access to space, we cannot rely on other nations. Right now it is a problem, we have the fully completed spy satellite CSO3 waiting for a launchers, as the flight from Kourou using a Soyuz launcher is no longer an option, so it will have to wait one or maybe two years. The solution to that problem is Ariane 6. We observe that recent crisis have made the relationship between the countries involved in the European launch sector tenser, but we must avoid division. Further into the future, we are looking at reusable launchers or spaceplanes.

Speaking of our European neighbours, it is critical to have a good working relationship with them. If their or our space capabilities are attacked, we need well thought out operational links to have an global resilient architecture, we need to be able to fall back on each other’s services, or even commercial services. It is hard to tell others what assets they need to procure for themselves, but we can study how we can share data and complete each other.

The French Nostradamus Over The Horizon radar, a solution for early warning? At least its designer thinks so

As far as early warning is concerned, so far it was mostly targeted at ballistic missiles, and we were relying on the American. We have some radar sensors but maybe we need to go further. Ground sensors are limited by the radar horizon, so satellites can be a solution, but they also have issues. A mix of both is probably optimal. Overall, it would require a lot of money, especially if we add interceptors in sufficient numbers to the equation. There is an EU project called Odin’s Eye under German leadership, and another one for the interceptors, which unfortunately evaded us [The HYDEF interceptor project was awarded to mainly Diehl from Germany and a bit to a Spanish company, with the French/Italian MBDA Twister proposal not being selected despite their expertise].

Sharing classified data is a big topic for cooperation. The US classify a lot of data at the top secret level, making it very hard to share. However, the maneuvers of the Shijian-21 satellite for instance were tracked by commercial operators. So we think in order to simply our life and exchange with allies on interconnected networks, we will consider raw data that are equivalent to what the commercial sector can provide as not classified. This will make us more effective. Analysis, interpretation and military intents will stay classified. We also need to harden the networks of our civilian partners against cyber threats.

On international norms, we need to make rules emerge, which will take time. We need to define what is an acceptable behaviour. We have shown the way but joining the US moratorium on direct ascent ASAT testing, we will need to make progress on space traffic management too, and work on defining keep out zones.

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