SPACE

Sky's the limit as space drills show off French military prowess

France's "Aster X" space drills are part of a 5 billion euro defence strategy bringing together the country’s military and civilian space arms.
France's "Aster X" space drills are part of a 5 billion euro defence strategy bringing together the country’s military and civilian space arms. REUTERS - STEPHANE MAHE

France has staged its first military drills in space, testing its orbital combat capabilities as Paris works to cement its position as the world’s third-biggest space power.

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Eighteen hypothetical “crisis events" were simulated this week, including an attack on a French satellite by foreign agents wanting to capture its data or destroy it, and wayward space debris penetrating the atmosphere and threatening the population.

The exercises are codenamed "Aster X" in honour of Asterix, the first French satellite launched in 1965, and they’re part of a 5 billion euro defence strategy that brings together the country’s military and civilian space arms.

With confrontations between world powers increasingly taking place in the loosely regulated domain of space, France has been steadily adjusting its military strategy to suit – even renaming its national air force the “air and space” force.

'Stress test'

Michel Friedling, who heads the fledgling Military Space Command (CDE) in Toulouse, said the drills – carried out from Monday to Friday – were a "stress test” of French space infrastructure to ensure the military was able to respond to threats.

With its nuclear submarines and ballistic missiles, France is already a global military leader – but authorities are making so secret of their intention to flex French muscle within this new military arena.

During an ultra-secure visit to the CDE Friday, President Emmanuel Macron and Defence Minister Florence Parly observed the drills, and attended a “working meeting on space strategy”.  

Back in 2019, when the space command was set up, Parly warned of the “need to act" because space was already being “militarised” by French "allies and adversaries” alike.

Satellites were vulnerable to being spied on and jammed, she said – recalling a 2017 incident in which a Russian satellite, Luch-Olymp, tried to approach the Franco-Italian military satellite, Athena-Fidus, in what Paris called "an act of espionage”.

"If our satellites are threatened, we will consider dazzling our adversaries' satellites,” Parly added. “This may involve the use of high-powered lasers … a field in which France has fallen behind. But we’ll make up for it.”

Meanwhile Friedling, a former fighter pilot, is also warning that hostile operations in space by both “state and private players” risk tipping the balance of power. 

French President Emmanuel Macron at a meeting on defence space strategy in Toulouse, on 12 March, 2021.
French President Emmanuel Macron at a meeting on defence space strategy in Toulouse, on 12 March, 2021. AFP - STEPHANE MAHE

Defending assets

At the beginning of the space-faring era in the 1960s, nations worried about weapons of mass destruction that could be fired from space. These days, efforts are focused on protecting expensive state communication satellites from foreign interference.

“A lot of army and military manoeuvres would not be possible without GPS or Galileo, the US and European systems for positioning, timing and navigation,” explains Dr Sarah Lieberman, a space poly expert at Canterbury Christchurch University.

“So by taking out those specific satellites, enemy forces could have a huge advantage.”

While the finer details of France’s space drills have been left to the imagination, Friedling said the operation was not only a first for France – but also for Europe. 

Until now, France had only participated in this type of military training as a guest, under US command. This time, Paris is running the show, with some help from the newly created US Space Force and Germany’s space agencies.

The French space command is set to double its staff by 2025, and Toulouse – home to the National Centre for Space Studies (CNES), the Airbus Space Academy and the Space City museum – is set to bolster its reputation as an international hub of space industry.

Just last month, Nato announced plans to set up its new space centre of excellence in the city.

The sky, it seems, is the limit.

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