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Pleiades satellite
Illustration of a Pléiades imaging satellite. France has made increasing use of space assets in recent years, including operations in Libya and Mali, to support military operations. (credit: EADS Astrium)

Space, luxury or necessity: situations and prospects for France after the Livre Blanc and Opération Serval

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Exceptions noted, space is traditionally perceived first and foremost through the many technological, scientific, political, and strategic benefits it provides, as witnessed by a few examples taken for The Space Review itself. It is rarer indeed to have it studied through a more operational military perspective: though well anticipated and not that new, the idea that space resources have assumed an essential place in battle management is dependent by definition on user experience and lessons learned from both operations and specific exercises1.

As judged by the ongoing Opération Serval in Mali as well as France’s new 2013 White Paper on defense and national security, one can only imagine the progress made since 2008 regarding the use of space.

This is particularly the case in France as armed forces have only progressively been made aware of the contributions of space to the greater effectiveness of their actions on ground. Such a feedback is, however, irreplaceable. It is through the latter that French defense has learned how to deal with capabilities that were judged sometimes very narrowly and appreciate them at their true value. Without experience, there can be no knowledge, and therefore neither progress nor assimilation.

As judged by the ongoing Opération Serval in Mali as well as France’s new 2013 White Paper on defense and national security (Livre blanc sur la Défense et la Sécurité nationale, LBDSN), one can only imagine the progress made since 2008 regarding the use of space. We are a long way indeed from the debate that was going on a few years ago between those who were claiming that knowing without having the capacity to act is useless, and those who were noticing that, just as a car cannot drive at night without headlights regardless of the power of its engine, a modern war cannot be waged without timely intelligence.

Lessons learned

It wasn’t until 2010 that, in line with the recommendations of the 2008 White Paper, the Joint Space Command (Commandement interarmées de l’Espace, CIE) was created with an objective explicitly directed toward the use of space assets in support of military operations. Three years after, it clearly embodies the paradigmatic shift that has moved away the French defense from the capability-oriented vision that was dominant before.

As illustrated by various publications and conferences in France, valuable lessons have been learned.2 There seems to remain no ambiguity: far from being a luxury, space now stands out as an essential complement. It is seen as a true necessity at both the political/strategic and operational/tactical levels.

1) Autonomy of decisions, autonomy of actions

Regarding outer space, France’s main objective is to perpetuate its autonomy and national sovereignty. As sovereignty is the state of determining itself based on its own will without depending on other nations, satellites are, first and foremost, the guarantee of France’s autonomy in assessment and thereby in decision-making.

The decision not to follow the US in 2003 was thus taken by then President Jacques Chirac in accordance with intelligence based for the most part on Earth-imaging satellite HELIOS 1, whose findings were in contradiction which was being said at the UN Security Council. When the war in South Ossetia broke out in 2008 between Russia and Georgia, then President Nicolas Sarkozy, as chair of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU), used images provided by HELIOS 1 and HELIOS 2 to deny Russia’s allegations about the withdrawal of its troops when those troops were actually progressing southward.

Space resources also contribute to the other form of autonomy, i.e. the autonomy of action. Both are but two sides of the same coin since deciding autonomously without having the means to act is more or less a statement of weakness showing that one state is constrained in choosing only decisions not to act.

For this reason, as exemplified in Libya in 2011 and Mali this year, satellites also participate to the ability to engage in coercive and initial-entry operations (entrée en premier) and preserve France’s strategic initiative. This is all the more the case since, thanks to its large array of observation orbital systems, France is well equipped to carry out its contribution as a respected partner and framework-nation in every multinational coalitions in which it takes part. Last but not least, not only does the use of space assets represent a genuine force multiplier for operational/tactical tasks as shown below but it also provides a strong currency allowing further intelligence via exchanges agreements with powerful nations.

2) Space for operations

Opération Harmattan, launched in March 2011 in the skies of Libya, inaugurated a new era allowing France to use space assets for operations in a comprehensive way, from planning to conduct. Though not responsive enough to follow the evolution of tactical situations occurring very fast on the theater of operations, satellites were still the best tool within reach able to offer coverage in depth over large areas.

Opération Serval showed an even greater use of space resources to provide timely and useful intelligence to forces operating in theater with an unprecedented integration and shortening of the observation-orientation-decision-action (OODA) loop.

While air sensors (RAFALE equipped with Reco New Generation/Areos reconnaissance pod) were constrained to operate in the north of Libya, HELIOS’s capabilities France permitted to take an interest to the whole country and make, for example, estimations of oil resources still in possession of pro-Khadafy forces. As such, satellites were crucial upstream on both defensive (anti-aircraft systems) and offensive levels (targeting), as well as downstream (post-raid damage assessments).

With the presence at the frontline of responsive assets, such as the very agile PLEIADES constellation composed of two optical Earth-imaging satellites, the ongoing war in Northern Mali added an additional layer to the French experience of the relation between space and operations. As described by General Henry de Roquefeuil, military adviser to the CNES president, “The objective was to stop the advance of the jihadist groups and protect the local population and French nationals. Once again, space systems proved vital.”3

To take a few examples, three weeks before the first Army Gazelle helicopters entered into action, all the routes and itineraries for combat had been calculated and integrated thanks to PLEIADES. As in Libya, the imagery catalogue ATHOS supplied the forces with essential, high-quality images for operational tasks such as targeting, planning, and 2D navigation4. As a result, Opération Serval showed an even greater use of space resources to provide timely and useful intelligence to forces operating in theater with an unprecedented integration and shortening of the observation-orientation-decision-action (OODA) loop, actually playing a explicit (but classified) role during operations in Gao and Timbuktu back in January.

White paper: preserving the future in an era of budgetary constraints

Following the path set by its 2008 predecessor, the 2013 White Paper identifies five main functions through which military power can contribute to France’s defense strategy and national security. A clear priority, though, is given to knowledge and anticipation (Connaissance et anticipation) with intelligence’s central role being “reaffirmed, over and above solely military or strictly security requirements and to the benefit of the other four strategic functions.”5 Hence, French defense will place a special emphasis on space-based imaging and electromagnetic interception.

As the space dimension naturally stands out because of its inherent transversal nature, it also does so through its relation with three issues of particular concern for France in the coming years:

The first is “pooling and sharing” (mutualisation et partage capacitaire). In order to guarantee and foster development of the most critical military capabilities despite a very constrained financial context, pooling of the most costly and technically sophisticated resources is established as a principle by the LBDSN. France will seek to implement it at both national (among the different intelligence services) and European (among European partners) levels.

The support for the federative space observation MUSIS (Multinational Space-Based Imaging System) program is an indicator of French determination. Even though France decided to go ahead alone with the optical space component program (Composante spatiale optique, CSO) with two satellites planned to be launched after 2017, it still trusts its European partners to be willing to develop a system of mutual, freely agreed interdependences, fully interoperable and shared, profiting from past cooperation and expertise gained from optical, infra-red and radar observation.

With so few mentions, the impression could be that, contrary to other space-borne applications, satellite communications is not “sanctuarized.” Between the lines, though, it becomes clear that space-based telecommunications are indispensable.

Crucial both for “knowledge and anticipation” and “deterrence,” France is also determined to place a permanent electronic (ELINT) and signals-intelligence (SIGINT) intercept satellite into orbit by 2020. True, the so-called Ceres programme (Capacité de renseignement électromagnétique spatial: spaceborne electromagnetic intelligence capability) was already placed high on the priority list by the 2008 White Paper.6 And here too, France would like to persuade other European countries to pool and share resources. But it also now has a full understanding of what it would miss should the delivery be delayed again: there is no going back once you have tasted the fruit.

The second issue covers the modernization of human resources specific to intelligence. Already facing an increasing volume of operational data, France requires powerful automated data processing and adequate numbers of qualified staff able to achieve a data generation rate that is compatible with the tempo of the battle. In parallel, it must bridge the gap between different needs and clients (the Elysée Palace/Planning and Operations Centre, as well as commanders and forces operating in theatre).

This is relevant to imagery, but also to electromagnetic monitoring that France has experimented for 18 years with the CERISE (1995–2001), CLEMENTINE (1999–2001), ESSAIM (2005–2010), and now ELISA (Electronic Intelligence by Satellite) demonstrators. As an illustration of the need for mass processing, it has been acknowledged that only 10% of the data acquired by the ESSAIM constellation have been analyzed despite its disposal and passivation in 2010.

Last but not least is the defense of the “last stand,” that is the monitoring and protection of the national territory and its population. This includes mainland France and the overseas territories (for instance, providing security to the Guiana Space Center spaceport in French Guiana) as well as an “Exclusive Economic Zone” of 11 million square kilometers, or 3 percent of the world’s ocean surface—second only to the United States.” Given France’s global presence and interests on all oceans and most continents, there is little need to underline, besides reconnaissance, the crucial role played by telecommunications satellites.

The 2013 White Paper confirms that a next-generation military telecommunications satellite system (mentioned as COMSAT NG) will succeed the aging SYRACUSE 3 secure communications satellites around 2020. It makes no indication, however, of possible outsourcing plans with the private sector or common projects both with Britain and Italy, whose replacement schedules are to some extent compatible with the French dates.7

With so few mentions, the impression could be that, contrary to other space-borne applications, satellite communications is not “sanctuarized.” Between the lines, though, it becomes clear that space-based telecommunications are indispensable, as shown by France’s advocacy for an efficient armed forces model (smaller, working within coalitions and engaging network-centered operations) and exemplified by its need for more bandwidth through the diversification of sensors (notably tactical and theater surveillance drones) and rapid intelligence sharing and real-time decision making.

The way forward: from space in operations to operations in space

According to the 2008 White Paper, space has become “as vital for the global economy and international security as the sea, the air and the land environment.” Not only are satellites necessary for military operations but also for the modern society’s daily life, becoming, as a result, a source of vulnerability that must be protected against intentional and non-intentional threats. “In order to overcome this dependency, avoid foreseeable collisions and forestall hostile acts,” the document continues, “France will encourage the development of a European project to detect and monitor objects likely to cause damage to launchers or satellites.”8

Though space monitoring still being described as very important (three occurrences), the 2013 Defense White Paper seems no more that interested in supporting the development of a space surveillance activity at the European level, meaning in the civil—as opposed to military—context of the European Space Agency or the European Union. New this year is the explicit focus on maintaining French autonomy in this area and developing a future Space Situational Awareness (SSA) capability in Europe through pragmatic steps only, in cooperation with Germany, that is intended to be open to other partners and future concrete projects.9

France is indeed well aware of its particular position in Europe. Thanks to its considerable experience with the system GRAVES (radar Grand Réseau Adapté à la VEille Spatiale, large network for space surveillance), it enjoys a privileged relationship with the United States structured within the framework of a bilateral agreement signed in 2011.10 It is also contributing to various international diplomatic initiatives aimed at maintaining a stable space environment, enhancing space security, and establishing transparency and confidence between space actors.11

Even though outer space is currently an area well preserved in a context of increasingly budget-constrained environment, space capabilities are costly. With France’s 160-page-long strategy now outlined, defense planners need to address the difficult question of how it will work in practice.

Such efforts are complementary and consistent with France’s refusal to let outer space become a theater of war. France is convinced that occupation of space must not be an end in itself, but a means allowing it to perpetuate its autonomy and national sovereignty. Following this logic, it therefore intends to acquire vital mastery (maîtrise) without deploying weapons in space or against space systems—i.e., space control—while still being able to guarantee freedom of access and exploitation, as well as protection and integrity of its orbiting satellites12. As the next step after the launch of the SPIRALE early warning space demonstrator, SSA is proof that the French defense has moved from “the use of space in operations to operations in space.”13

Even though outer space is currently an area well preserved in a context of increasingly budget-constrained environment, space capabilities are costly. With France’s 160-page-long strategy now outlined, defense planners need to address the difficult question of how it will work in practice. Thus, having set a minimum threshold for identifying the elements of sovereignty that must be maintained, the capabilities associated and a proper mix of national/cooperative assets, France is waiting for the military planning law for 2014–2019 (loi de programmation militaire, LPM) to be discussed in Parliament starting this summer. With a model based on acquiring the entire available spectrum (launchers, imagery, early warning, signal intelligence, navigation, SSA, and communication satellites), the challenge will be to draw up priorities between space capabilities.


1 France, along seven other NATO countries, took part for the first time last year in the US-led Schriever Wargame 2012 International Game that focuses on space and cyber defense issues.

2 In 2011, at the occasion of the 49th Paris International Air Show at Le Bourget, the Revue Défense Nationale published in coordination with the Strategic Aerospace Studies Centre (Centre d’Etudes Stratégiques Aérospatiales, CESA) and the Joint Space Command a special bilingual edition dedicated to space entitled, “Space For Operations.” Available online. Similarly, the “War College” (École de guerre) organized on two occasions—in June 2012 and May 2013—an open workshop on “Space and Operations” with two aims: first, to raise awareness among the future military leaders and, second, to benefit from a cross-view and constructive exchanges between users experience and representatives of organizations in charge of providing and managing French space assets. See notably General Pascal Valentin (ed.), Espace & Opérations. Enseignements et perspectives, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2012, 168p. This article has been greatly benefiting from these three open sources.

3 Quoted in “Satellites over the theatre of operations,” CNESMAG, 57, April 2013, p. 11. Available online.

4 See French Ministry of Defence, “Athos,” 6 June 2013 (in French).

5 See French Ministry of Defence, White Paper on Defence and National Security 2013: Twelve Key Points, p. 6. Available online

6 See The White Paper Commission, Press-Kit: The French White Paper on defence and national security, 2008.

7 See for example Peter B. de Selding, “Military Satellite Communications | Europe Faces Obstacles in Pooling Military Satellite Telecom Resources,” Space News, 19 June 2013

8 The White Paper Commission, Défense et Sécurité nationale: Le Livre Blanc, Paris, Odile Jacob, 2008, p. 143 and p. 179( in French).

9 Peter B. de Selding, “French Defence Ministry Now Says It Supports European SSA Effort,” Space News, 6 May 2013.

10 Jim Garamone, “U.S., French Defense Leaders Sign Space Agreement,” American Forces Press Service, February 2011.

11 These include the French initiative “Long term sustainability of space activities” proposed by the French delegation at the Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS) in 2009–2010, and the EU international code of conduct for exoatmospheric space activities of September 2010. See Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Les négociations multilatérales sur les dossiers spatiaux,” France Diplomatie, 13 August 2012 (in French). As a typical stance, see also the recent reminder offered by France’s Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Edouard Guillaud, in the Shangri-La Dialogue’s Third Plenary session, quoted in James Hackett, “Re-examining space,” IISS, 2 June 2013.

12 For an English review of this position, see notably Jean Paul Granier, counsellor to the director of the strategic affairs directorate (Délégation aux Affaires Stratégiques, DAS), “Defending Space – the Next Step?,” in Space for Operations, op. cit., p. 26–30.

13 General Yves Arnaud, head of the CIE, “Conclusion,” in Valentin (ed.), Espace & Opérations, op. cit., p. 150.