To protect its satellites, France outlines ambitious space-weapons program

After French President Emmanuel Macron called for a space high command to protect his nation’s satellites earlier this month, military officials on Thursday released their plans in more detail.

As reported in the French financial newspaper Les Echos, the French Defense Minister, Florence Parly, outlined a new space weapons program that would allow the country to move from space surveillance to the active protection of its satellites.

“France is not embarking on a space arms race,” Parly said, according to the publication. However, the projects outlined Thursday by French officials include swarms of nano-satellites that would patrol a few kilometers around French satellites, a ground-based laser system to blind snooping satellites, and perhaps even machine guns on board some satellites.

Parly said one of the country’s biggest challenges would be to develop these capabilities with about one-tenth of the budget that the US spends on civil and defense space activities.

Satellites spying on satellites

The announcement was made at the Lyon-Mont-Verdun airbase, and it sets the stage for the creation of a French “space command.” The country is concerned about missile tests conducted against satellites by Russia, the United States, China, and more recently India. Parly also expressed concerns about an attempt by a Russian satellite to spy on French space assets.

“Since then, this intrusive satellite has left its business card with eight other satellites from different countries that have been spied on, scrambled or blinded,” Parly said. “Threats are increasing. We have to face it, because it is our independence that is at stake.”

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits weapons of mass destruction in orbit, but it does not rule out the placement of military assets there, nor the enactment of self-defense measures. Parly said France’s priority remains the peaceful use of space, but the country must protect its assets there.

Flares and chaff

Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, told Ars that the French have been telegraphing their concerns about the militarization of space by countries like the United States, Russia, and China for some time.

“We knew something like this was coming because over the last several years there has been a lot of increased concern in France and other countries about protecting satellites from attack,” he told Ars.

Some of the technologies outlined in the French article sound somewhat fanciful—such as machine guns mounted on satellites—but Weeden said that most of these systems are within reach of France and other developed nations.

For example, the concept of a “swarm” of protective nano-satellites is similar to the US Air Force’s Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program in that it may seek to monitor activities in the geostationary region of space and to help detect hostile approaches toward French military satellites in orbit there.

“I think there is a concerted effort by France, and other countries as well, to think of the space equivalent of ‘flares and chaff’ or electronic countermeasures used on airplanes to protect against anti-aircraft missiles, and see how such concepts might be applied to satellites,” Weeden said.

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