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An Overview of France’s Counterspace Capabilities

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
April 25, 2020
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Global Counterspace Capabilities:
An Open Source Assessment

Secure World Foundation
April 2020

Full Report

The following excerpt from the report summarizes France’s counterspace capabilities.

Country Summary

While France has long had a space program, as well as military satellites, it was not until very recently that France had an explicit focus on offensive and defensive counterspace capabilities.

The major change occurred in July 2019 with the release of the first French Space Defense Strategy, which elevated French military space organization and reassigned control of French military satellites from the French space agency to the military.

The French strategy focuses on two main areas: to improve space situational awareness around French space assets and provide an active defense against threats. While some French officials suggested machine guns and laser cannons on satellites, the actual plan calls for ground-based lasers for dazzling and space-based inspection satellites.

Specific Programs

Direct Ascent Anti-Satellite (DA-ASAT) Technologies

There are no known plans for France to have a DA-SAT capability at this time. France does have a jointly fielded missile defense system with Italy called SAMP/T (Surface-to-Air Missile Platform/Terrain); however, its interception altitude is at best 120 km, and is thus not of much military utility as an ASAT.

Co-Orbital Technologies

In July 2019, when announcing France’s interest in developing active counterspace capabilities, French Minister of Defense Florence Parly did reportedly offer the option of including machine guns on satellites that would theoretically target enemy satellites’ solar panels.

This was part of a larger discussion about how “our allies and adversaries are militarising space…we need to act.” However, in private discussions with French officials, this was clarified as having been a poorly-used metaphor. Orbital mechanics severely limits the utility of projectile weapons in orbit.

Electronic Warfare

While France has terrestrial-based EW capabilities, there are scant details available in the public domain and it is unclear how effective or operational they are against space capabilities.

Directed Energy

In July 2019, French Minister of Defense Florence Parly indicated the potential for placing lasers on satellites with the goal of protecting them from attack.

“If our satellites are threatened, we intend to blind those of our adversaries…We reserve the right and the means to be able to respond: that could imply the use of powerful lasers deployed from our satellites or from patrolling nano-satellites.”

These lasers would “dazzle those who would be tempted to approach too close.” Minister Parly said that by 2025, the first capabilities under her strategy should be ready, with the completion being achieved by 2030.

It is unclear whether these are meant to be destructive laser weapons or those used as countermeasures against the targeting systems of an attacker. A nanosatellite is very unlikely to have sufficient onboard power to generate a destructive laser, although it may be possible to have lower power directed energy systems that could be used to blind, dazzle, or confuse electro-optical targeting systems of approaching coorbital ASATs or inspection satellites.

These systems could operate in a similar manner to the directional infrared countermeasures systems mounted on some modern aircraft to confuse or jam infrared seekers on anti-aircraft missiles. However, successfully aiming such a laser at an approaching satellite or interceptor is a nontrivial challenge.

Space Command Established

In July 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that by September 1 of that year, France would be elevating the existing Joint Space Command within the French Air Force to be a full Space Command, and renaming the French Air Force to be the Air and Space Force, or the Armée de l’Air et de l’Espace.

He said that this was to “ensure the development and reinforcement of our space capabilities.” The new French Space Command would start off with 220 people as its staff, and would be headquartered in Toulouse.

According to Parly, “Eventually, this command will be responsible for all our space operations, under the orders of the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces.” She noted the importance of the Ministry of Armed Forces becoming a space operator, as “If we want to be able to carry out real military space operations, we must develop autonomy of action.”

The French military had originally put aside 3.6 billion Euros (roughly $4 billion) to invest in its satellites from 2019-2025. Parly announced in July 2019 an additional 700 million Euros for this effort.

This 4.3 billion Euros include funds for refreshing France’s military space infrastructure (reconnaissance, signals intelligence, and communications satellites, as well as the GRAVES radar used for space surveillance). Parly also noted that France will be testing a long-range radar in face of increased missile threats.

In July 2019, France also announced its first Space Defense Strategy. It has two goals: to increase and strengthen SSA in order for there to be better decisionmaking, and second, to protect French and selected European space assets.

This strategy is intended to be defensive in nature, with Parly noting in her July 2019 speech that this was “not an arms race.” According to Parly, “active defense is not an offensive strategy, it’s all about self-defense…That is, when a hostile act has been detected, characterized and attributed, to be able to respond in an appropriate and proportionate way, in conformity with the principles of international law.”