Strategists throughout history could only dream of what today’s satellites are able to do. Knowledge of the terrain, information gathering, ultra high-performance communications in real-time… Now, we can be hundreds or even thousands of kilometers away from a conflict and still have front-row seats. And countries with access to space are pulling ahead. For the next Mardi de l’espace (Space Tuesday), tonight, Henry de Roquefeuil of France’s CNES and General Yves Arnaud of the Joint Space Command (French Ministry of Defense) will discuss the strategic resources in play.
The military also makes use of civilian satellites, like Jason 2, for surveillance of the oceans. © NASA
Think military superiority, think satellites. In terms of defense, space has become a standard against which the power of nations is measured. “Today, space capabilities are indispensable for the precise targeting of operations. They contribute significantly to limiting the risk of collateral damage,” explains the General of the Air Division, Yves Arnaud. “As far as diplomacy is concerned, it is essential,” insists Henry de Roquefeuil, military advisor to the president of the CNES.
“Capabilities essential for diplomacy”
France’s Defense Ministry devotes 220 million euros to space each year, on average. If we add the civil budget, too, France invests around 1700 million euros annually—a sum that guarantees it the top spot among European space powers. “Satellites offer the ability to follow a situation and for strategic surveillance, helpful for anticipation and prevention of crises, as well as the planning and carrying out of operations,” according to the site of the French Ministry of Defense.
For military purposes, there are four broad categories of satellites: telecommunications, observation, signals intelligence and early warning systems. In terms of telecommunications, France and Italy have just sent Athena-Fidus, a new, high-speed communications satellite, into orbit. It will increase the capacity of the Syracuse program. As for observation missions, these are handled by Helios, the group of European satellites, and the civil/military system, Pléiades. They allow the territory of countries to be examined, without violating their airspace. Soon, they will be relieved by a constellation of satellites, called MUSIS, capable of observing the Earth at any time of day or night, and regardless of the cloud cover.
A recent addition to the palette of French military space technologies is signals intelligence. The four Elisa demonstration satellites are able to detect and identify enemy radar in order to develop a detailed map of their positions and characteristics. CERES, the operational program that will follow, is scheduled for 2020. Lastly, for detection of ballistic missiles, the two microsatellites of the Spirale program made it possible to carry out the first experiments and research is continuing on such early warning systems.
These are no Death Star-like ultimate weapons, however. “The French position on this subject is very clear. Space must not be used directly to attack,” Yves Arnaud emphasizes. The interest of satellites is entirely strategic. They are deterrents, whose objective is to reduce risk and refine the target in cases of military operations.
Civil satellites can also be very useful to the Ministry of Defense, in areas of geography, meteorology and oceanography, in particular. The satellites Spot, Météosat and Jason may be called upon in preparation for a mission.
Space: “Both power and vulnerability”
While satellites are scrutinizing the environment of conflict zones on Earth, Earth also needs to observe closely the environment of satellites. “Space is a very hostile place. Brutal changes in temperature, cosmic rays, and clouds of meteorites are some of the aggressive environmental conditions. If you add to that the debris left by human activity, you understand that our capabilities are fragile,” Yves Arnaud points out. More than 300,000 pieces of debris over 1cm in size are in orbit around our planet, and that number will only go up. “We’ve seen an increase in awareness since 2009, after the collision of two satellites that created a lot of debris. But there’s still a lot to do, especially to avoid adding even more debris,” remarks Henry de Roquefeuil.
Defense on Earth and defense in space: two aspects of this next Mardi de l’espace. Join us tonight, Tuesday, 18 February, at 19h30 at the Café du Pont Neuf in Paris, or on Twitter via the hashtag #CNESTweetup.