Insight - A View of the French Approach to the Militarization of Space

Friday, June 5, 2020

By Xavier Pasco; Director, Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique (FRS), Paris and SWF Advisory Committee Member

The 2020 edition of the Global Counterspace report by the Secure World Foundation, an annual document that has become a reference to help reflect on the dynamics of space security, rightly underlines the recent interest shown by France in the development of counterspace activities. The measures announced a little less than a year ago, well detailed by the authors of the report, show an unprecedented political commitment to reinforce the military organization and develop new programmes to deal with a worrying space security situation. In particular, the choice to clarify the French concept of “active defence” has shown a taste for a certain pragmatism at the same time as it seems to opt for discussions on space security that are both more open and more effective.

These announcements may have appeared as a surprise but they reflect the growing importance of space in the French military system for many years now, an importance which has since been endorsed at the highest level of government. The presidential desire expressed two years ago to prepare a new space defence strategy was initially based on the observation that the country was becoming increasingly dependent on its space assets for its military operations. The anti-terrorist operations launched in Africa, in Mali in particular during the previous presidency, and then continued in the framework of Operation Barkhane, aimed at blocking the resurgence of terrorist operations in sub-Saharan Africa and Europe, relied heavily on space-based observation and telecommunications resources. This central place of space in the French military system, already noted in successive national strategies, then reiterated by the Strategic Review of Defence and National Security requested by President Macron upon his election, is no longer a matter of debate. 

The new requested strategy also had to take into account the numerous transformations that have occurred in space activities in recent years. Perhaps most striking among them is the emergence of new players carrying new projects for satellite constellations. While mega constellation projects comparable to Starlink or Oneweb programs have not emerged in France yet, some more limited projects such as Unseenlab or Kineis demonstrate a growing appetite for using small satellites with institutional and commercial objectives in mind. Thanks to technological progress and cost reductions which suggest the proliferation of ever smaller satellites, the space landscape could indeed undergo profound transformations in the years to come. While these developments herald more intense economic activity in space, they also make space a more complex environment to manage. Thus, even though the military in France acknowledges that it is increasingly dependent on space, it must face a changing environment which brings new risks and even new threats. This sheer effect has been perceived and has guided the need to adapt the existing structures and develop new capabilities. 

One of the direct effects of this new defence strategy was the establishment of a new Space Command. This Command is not intended to become a sui generis “Space Force.” It is hosted by the Air Force, whose general officers already had the role of leading the previous joint command structure, the Joint Space Command, which was created in 2010. But beyond this reorganisation, the announcement of new security-oriented capabilities is newsworthy. Both in the Minister's speech and in the strategy itself, mention is made of new satellite protection missions within the framework of a concept known as "Active Defence" which include the use of orbital perimeter surveillance and laser-based response means in particular. These announcements may have come as a surprise, given that these subjects, sometimes raised by the major powers, remain sensitive and are rarely at the top of the agenda for medium-sized military powers. These counterspace programmes are now often in the headlines of the specialist press and for many years now the three main military space powers, China, Russia and the United States, have been preparing for this type of capability. The revival of tension in this area was launched by China’s first anti-satellite test carried out in 2007, then followed by the destruction of one of its failing satellites by the United States, in 2008, then by various experiments by multiple major powers consisting in approaching satellites and most recently by another ASAT test which was carried out a year ago in the same way by India. Additionally, recent orbital approach manoeuvres by the Russian Luch Olymp satellite often denounced by the United States, but also by France, have contributed to maintaining the tension.

In this context, the French announcement is a form of political gamble. First of all, it is worth noting the pragmatism displayed, which again may have come as a surprise. The speech notes this trend towards greater militarization and then acknowledges that the time has come to try to prevent it. The time for space as a sanctuary is over, and this is regrettable, it seems, but it is a fact. From then on, French strategy seems to be playing on two sides, which are now complementary. 

On the one hand, it is a matter of avoiding naivety and preparing to protect oneself, including by evoking concepts that might have been taboo in the past. Thus, suggesting perimeters to be protected against intruding satellites (if only through the strong reference to the 2017 manoeuvres of the Russian Luch-Olymp satellite near the French-Italian Athena-Fidus dual telecommunications satellite) in itself raises the question of the general principles of freedom of movement in space. Likewise, some may be tempted to read this mention of a possible use of lasers in orbit as offensive and to oppose it to the supposedly more peaceful proposals for a ban on weapons in orbit as supported by China and Russia. However, the choice is clearly stated and the announcement is intended to be a deterrent.

But at the same time, and this is the second part of the announcement, the French position is supplemented by a repeated call for greater transparency and cooperation. And this is undoubtedly where the main political gamble lies, which can be detected at the basis of this strategy. For France, these technical and military initiatives must in fact be recognized to form the starting point for renewed negotiations, built, as it were, on bases that have been cleaned up because they are considered realistic and ultimately more transparent. Taking note of the proven existence of counterspace policies, policies that it seems illusory to hope to see disappear, the announcements seem carefully crafted to show that it is nevertheless possible to control their most harmful collective effects. This is particularly apparent in the insistence on evoking the possible use of directed energy weapons, and more precisely lasers. It is a matter of underscoring the wish to ban the use of other types of kinetic energy weapons, which are considered to be much more harmful and with much less controllable effects. France would moreover support any initiative aimed at banning the use of kinetic energy weapons, the Minister stressed in the same speech. In the same way, no doubt, the perception of the threat on a satellite and the right, in a way "self-assigned", to assess the danger and respond to it if necessary may raise objections. But here again, the bias seems to be to consider the subject as inescapable and to transform it into an accepted principle for possible future discussions. At a time when servicing and refuelling programmes are gradually being put in place, involving procedures for bringing satellites closer together, it may after all seem healthy to discuss, or even prepare collectively for, discussions on these technologies without fear of a possible military dimension. In this respect, the Consortium for Rendez-Vous and Servicing Operations (CONFERS) supported by the Secure World Foundation provides a good example of the increasing involvement of large range of stakeholders, including industry or more academic institutions, to promote best practices and commonly agreed standard for future On-Orbit Servicing and Rendez-vous and Proximity operations.

Thus, the new French strategy claims a form of pragmatism, at the risk of being perceived by some as officialising new forms of militarisation of space. However, this pragmatism is also a gamble on a possible new start to more realistic discussions on space security, discussions that have been largely at a standstill at the international level for more than a decade. As recently suggested by my colleague Dr. Rajeswari Rajagopalan, the rising tension around space security issues makes it all the more urgent to resume effective multilateral talks. And such discussions must be taken seriously. It looks like it is also a major part of France's strategy to play on the confidence that a middle power can inspire in a debate that cannot remain the sole preserve of competing major powers.

Last updated on June 5, 2020