Future Tense

France Is Getting Serious About Its “Space Command”

French Minister of Defence Florence Parly (L), addresses a speech next to the Air Force general Philippe Lavigne (C) to present the new Defence space Strategy on July 25, 2019 at the Command of Air Defence and Air Operations (Commandement de la defense aerienne et des operations aeriennes - CDAOA) in the base 942 on the Verdun mount in Poleymieux-au-Mont-d'Or near Lyon, eastern France. (Photo by PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP)        (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)
French Defense Minister Florence Parly delivers a speech next to the French Air Force Gen. Philippe Lavigne to present France’s new space strategy on July 25. Philippe Desmazes/Getty Images

The French are stepping up their game in space, and it’s going to involve lasers. Last week, the country’s minister of Defense announced plans to weaponize its satellites with a robust active defense system. France hopes to deploy satellites equipped with cameras, lasers and maybe even guns by 2030.

These details come after French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled the blueprint for a spruced-up “Space Command” during the country’s Bastille Day celebrations in mid-July. It’s an upgrade on the “Joint Space Command” that France has maintained since 2010. Eventually, the satellites will bolster France’s offensive and defensive capacities, so that the government can identify, then vanquish, enemy satellites committing hostile acts beyond Earth. One component involves building ground-based lasers to “blind” adversary satellites from Earth, another calls for lasers mounted on military satellites to strike anti-satellite weapons in space. According to a report by Task and Purpose, there was even “talk of ‘submachine guns breaking solar panels’ ” on enemy satellites during the minister’s announcement.

It’s an idea that doesn’t come cheap. France is set to push about $774 million of its military budget over to outer space defense, and officials expect the entire plan to cost about $4.8 billion by 2025, according to Minister of Defense Florence Parly. It will be based out of a new airfield in Toulouse and will recruit 220 soldiers from France’s military space agencies.

The Space Command plan will continue to respect the guidelines of the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits the use of nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction in space. Brian Weeden, a space policy expert at the Secure World Foundation, told me in an email that the report that submachine guns will be built on the satellites is dubious and appears to have been a miscommunication.

The French initiative comes amid a growing fixation on the role that satellites and space weaponry play in countries’ military operations. Weeden says that governments are increasingly employing satellites for intelligence collection and are worried about enemies targeting them on that front. He adds that a lot of countries are bolstering their own equipment and their capabilities to attack other satellites, but most haven’t been as boastful about these intentions as Macron.

For instance, China and Russia have both developed anti-satellite (ASAT) weaponry, and India tested a missile capable of destroying satellites in March. The U.S. has also done demonstrations, and in February, President Donald Trump signed a directive to establish a Space Force that will be overseen by the U.S. Air Force.

The global trend toward ASAT weaponization is troubling to many experts. Laura Seward Forczyk, a space professional and founder of the Georgia Space Alliance, told me over email that she is concerned about this scenario, calling ASAT “harmful” to the space community. She fears that the U.S.’s failure to check other countries’ ASAT activities, not to mention its own testing, amount to a go-ahead for the rest of the world. Seward Forczyk also cites the buildup of space debris as a negative consequence of ASAT use that will ultimately harm the same countries that hope to benefit.

“The biggest concern I have is the risk of misperceptions and mistakes in space triggering a conflict,” says Weeden. Though there have been several tests, no country has yet launched an ASAT attack, and there’s a lot of “hyperbole and fearmongering” surrounding it among politicians and officials. As a result, there’s certainly a chance that an accident or misinterpreted action could hurtle nations into an armed conflict.

Since no ASAT weapons have been used operationally yet, it’s hard to tell how effective they will be in protecting satellites, and if they can be used without touching off a major crisis between countries. After all, it’s likely that by 2030, France will not be the only laser-equipped country in space.

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