French President Macron, speaking in July, announced plans to establish a space force as part of his country’s armed forces. (credit: Elysee.fr)
For decades France has led Europe’s various space programs. France was the driving force behind the creation of the Ariane series of launch vehicles. Until Elon Musk and SpaceX came along, these rockets dominated the world’s commercial launch services industry. France also pushed hard to compete with the US in building communications satellites and made an all-out effort to control the vital satellite insurance business.
France also has been a leader in Europe’s civil space research organization, the European Space Agency (ESA). It pays roughly 28% of ESA’s $6.5 billion budget, while Germany contributes 22% and Italy and the UK 10% and 9%, respectively. The French government may not completely control ESA’s policy, but it does have the biggest say in what Europe does, or does not do, in space.
In the military sphere, Paris has tried to lay the basis for a pan-European military space organization, and it has allowed other EU states to join its military communications and spy satellite programs. France even allowed the European spy satellite control center, which operates spacecraft which they largely paid for, to be located in Spain. Successive French governments have obvioustly believed that sacrificing their narrow (as they see it) national interest in favor of “Europe” is worth it.
Now, however, something has changed. France is going ahead with an undisguised military space force that will not hide behind the various “civil” masks that were used to pretend that the Galileo satellite navigation system was not a military asset. This move has not gone down well with Germany.
Even more surprising is the announcement by France’s defense minister that France is going to build active “defensive” space weapons to protect its satellites as well as a powerful ground-based laser that can be used to attack enemy spacecraft. No matter what kinds of euphemisms are used (and French mastery of this art is almost as complete as the Pentagon’s), this will “weaponize” space.
The two reasons have been commonly given for this move—that Macron is imitating Trump’s Space Force move and that France was shocked into action by a close encounter between one of their military communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit and a Russian “inspector” spacecraft—are, at best, only part of the story. Trump’s Space Force effort obviously got Macron’s attention. He knew that Trump had touched on a profound change in the strategic environment and that space is now, like it or not, a battlefield.
In recent years, French military space experts, like American ones, have recognized the need for to separate themselves from the Armee de L’Air and assume a new identity as L’Armee de l’Air et de L’Espace.
More important, however, is that France wants to have real and not symbolic spacepower. Without effective space weapons, this is now impossible. Macron is being realistic about this, even if other Europeans are still enmeshed in space arms control delusions. These were embodied in things like the EU-promoted “Code of Conduct” for space activities, which would have effectively squashed US space weapons development programs and, if it was in place, would also prevent France from going ahead with its defensive anti-satellite weapons program. Last July 14, Macron made it clear: “We will better protect our satellites including the use of active measures.”
The French preference would be for a European military space solution, but they are willing to go it alone in the hope that other Europeans will eventually follow. With the UK leaving the EU and Germany reluctant to join anything that looks like an aggressive, not to say “Trumpian” Space Force, France may have to wait a long time before any of Europe’s major powers fall in behind President Macron.
For Americans, this may mean that our European NATO allies will eventually learn to share in the burden of keeping space secure. The new French organization may want to cooperate with the new US organization at least in its potential “Coast Guard” type missions.
One curious thing is the way France has openly chosen to begin its space weapons development program. Not only does this throw decades of disarmament and arms control rhetoric onto the ash heap of history, but it opens the way for the US to do the same. American satellites are utterly defenseless against direct anti-satellite attack. Thus, it should be unthinkable that France will use active measures to protect its spacecraft while the US does nothing.
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