This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform

At the beginning of 2019 France revealed that it was working on hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) technology, while last month Paris unveiled its first Defence Space Strategy. Both reflect and reinforce France’s goal of sustaining ‘strategic autonomy’, whether in threat awareness, its nuclear capabilities or emerging key technologies.

Such now is the importance of space that the Air Force will become the Air and Space Force.

Florence Parly, the French minister for the armed forces, announced the space strategy on 25 July. It aims to ensure France’s freedom of decision and action in space. Plans notably include the potential weaponisation of satellites for self-defence.

In 2018, France accused Russia of using a satellite for on-orbit espionage, with a Franco-Italian military satellite a target, among others.

Threat awareness and freedom of action

The space strategy sets a two-fold ambition. The first is to provide better space situational awareness in support of national decision-making. The second is to improve the protection of national and key European space assets, including the possible provision of onboard lasers for satellite defence. Underpinning both is the intent to sustain and support national and European space industrial bases.

Space-based intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance is a key supporting element of France’s nuclear deterrent. Ensuring its credibility and survivability likely forms part of the rationale behind what Paris has called V-MaX (véhicule manoeuvrant experimental), a project to develop a Mach 5-plus HGV. HGVs are viewed as one means of further complicating an opponent’s missile-defence requirements, and of increasing the chance of a successful strike. France is aiming to fly an HGV demonstrator vehicle in 2021.

Turning point

The strategy identifies three areas for the armed forces to address: organisational coherence, the rule of law and the previously mentioned active defence. As well as rebranding the air force as the Air and Space Force to reflect its widened responsibilities, a Space Command is planned to be established on 1 September, bringing together all military space-related units.

This will be located in Toulouse, the heart of France’s aerospace industry. It replaces the Joint Space Command, set up in 2010, which suffered from the lack of a single chain of command.

National laws will be amended to provide the armed forces with space-operator status, allowing them to independently operate satellites. Up to now this has been done mainly through civilian space agency CNES. Such changes are reinforced by the emergence of space as an operational domain.

Until now, it had been considered a support function. Freedom of access, upholding peaceful and responsible use, and acting in accordance with international law underpin the legal aspects of the space strategy.

In this context, France asserts its right to be able to respond to activities it considers hostile through counter-measures or active defence. It is also calling for a clearer interpretation of the law of state responsibility regarding space activities. Paris says it remains committed to the Space Treaty and to various fora intended to foster ‘good behaviour’ in space.

Changing threat landscape accelerates procurement

Until recently, satellite threat assessment focused on ground-based risks, such as communications jamming, cyber attacks, the use of lasers to dazzle or damage satellite sensors, or missile interceptors.

Growing concern about on-orbit threats, however, has prompted Paris to consider passive and active protection for its future satellites. As well as lasers, the defence ministry is looking at the use of onboard cameras to provide ‘perimeter’ warning of an approaching satellite that could represent a threat.

The satellite could then, for instance, be manoeuvred out of the way. The ministry is also looking at very small or nano-satellites for a range of military roles. These would provide responsive access to space, and the capacity to rapidly reconstitute space-based ISR or communications were the existing satellites to be damaged or destroyed. The ability to quickly launch a replacement capability based on small or nano-satellites would provide resilience to attacks.

Given its expanded ambitions for military space, France is allocating an additional €700 million (US$800m) from 2019 to 2025. Innovative launch techniques and platforms such as light satellites or airship-based pseudo satellites may be explored within this funding. Paris is also looking to leverage an already under way Franco-German space situational project approved by their joint Security and Defence Council in 2017.

interIt should allow for the identification, characterisation and attribution of unfriendly or hostile acts in space. The 2019–25 defence spending already includes €3.6 billion (US$4.1bn) for the renewal of France’s military space infrastructure, including the CSO family of electro-optical reconnaissance satellites, the Ceres signals-intelligence satellite and the Syracuse 4 communications satellites. The GRAVES terrestrial space-surveillance radar will also be renewed. Total funding for defence space will therefore reach €4.3bn (US$4.9bn) over the next six years.

Cyber and space alignment

The military space strategy also reflects Paris’s approach to the cyber domain. In both areas, France has adopted a declaratory strategy based on active defence and deterrence. As with cyber, space is now recognised as an operational domain. For both, Paris has emphasised the need to ensure compliance with international law. One difference, however, is that France maintains that its space strategy is purely defensive, irrespective of the intent to put laser weapons on satellites. Parly said in her speech in July that this was ‘not an arms race’.

While it may not be an arms race, the impetus to forge a space strategy is the result of the domain becoming an ever more contested environment and of its importance for deterrence, and, if this fails, warfighting. France is one of – if not the – strongest proponents of ‘strategic autonomy’, national and European, and its space strategy reinforces this. Not only is it recapitalising its military space infrastructure, ground based and orbital, it is also acquiring the means to protect them.

France's strategic autonomy takes to space, Arthur Laudrain, the International Institute for Strategic Studies