French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly. Credit: CSIS video via youtube

PARIS — France’s defense minister on Sept. 7 said France’s next-generation geostationary-orbit military telecommunications satellites would carry small cameras to better identify and track unfriendly visits by other nations’ spacecraft.

Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said the decision is a first, affordable manifestation of France’s decision to make space situational awareness a government priority. The government is also upgrading its Graves bi-static surveillance radar, which takes broad measures of low Earth orbit and working with Germany and other European governments to increase funding for the so-far anemic European Commission Space Surveillance and Tracking budget.

In a broad speech on military space policy as France puts into effect its next seven-year Military Program Law 2019-2025, Parly said France would not play the model orbital student at a time when several space powers are developing advanced military space capabilities.

Exhibit A for Parly was Russia’s Olymp satellite, which was launched into geostationary orbit in 2014 and has made a career of stopping close by other satellites, presumably in an attempt to capture radio frequency signals.

Fleet operator Intelsat in 2015 publicly called the Russian government “irresponsible” for stationing Olymp between two Intelsat spacecraft. Space trackers have since followed Olymp, sometimes called Luch-Olymp, as it moved in and out of proximity to multiple spacecraft on the geostationary arc. Intelsat said U.S. government authorities were made aware of the maneuvers, but there was little that could be done to stop them.

In late 2017, it was the turn of the French-Italian Athena-Fidus broadband communications satellite to register a visit by Olymp.

Parly referred to Olymp as “a satellite with big ears but a bit indiscreet.”

Olymp came “a little to close — so close that we could have concluded it was trying to capture our communications. Eavesdropping on one’s neighbors is not just unfriendly, it’s called an act of espionage. We saw it coming and we took the necessary measures,” Parly said in an address to the Toulouse, France, facility of the French space agency, CNES.

“We surveilled it closely and saw that it continued active maneuvers in the ensuing months, close to other targets. Who’s to say that tomorrow it won’t again come close to one of our satellites.”

Espionage it may well be, much as France’s years-long program to deploy electromagnetic eavesdropping satellites in low Earth orbit might be considered espionage. After several pilot programs, the operational Ceres trio of electronics intelligence satellites is scheduled for launch in 2020.

Similarly, the U.S. Air Force for several years has had satellites in or near the geostationary-orbit belt to monitor what’s going on, notably the GEO Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP).

The U.S. Air Force’s GEO Space Situational Awareness Program, GSSAP, is designed to place satellites near the geostationary arc to monitor spacecraft in geostationary orbit. Credit: US Air Force

In a similar vein, Parly warned that nations could use satellite in-orbt servicing or logistics vehicles “as covers for [military/intelligence] operations or even as weapons.” Later in her speech she praised Airbus Defence and Space for its Space Tug orbital servicing vehicle, which is in the design phase.

Parly said she was determined that the full 3.6 billion euros ($4.2 billion) in military space spending planned for in the seven-year program law is made available. In past spending programs, headline spending figures have been rendered meaningless because the payment credits were not approved.

Parly said a strategic military space review ordered last year is likely to be completed and sent to President Emmanuel Macron before the end of the year. She said she urged its authors to respect no taboos, including taking France further into the realm of the militarization of space with more-aggressive assets.

How much financial maneuvering room is in the French defense budget is unclear. France is already committed to building two Syracuse 4 telecommunications satellites to replace the aging Syracuse 3 series. These are scheduled for launch in 2022, and Early has said a third Syracuse 4 would be ordered in 2023.

There is also the Graves upgrade and the French military’s use of ArianeGroup’s GEO Tracker, which has deployed six telescopes in Australia, Chile, France and Spain. ArianeGroup has said 15% of the geostationary-orbit objects it has identified are not found in the U.S. government’s public Space Track catalogue:

Parly said that in addition to GEO Tracker, her ministry is evaluating sensors from Thales Alenia Space that will identify and catalogue objects in space.

Parly appeared to intend her speech as an alarm signal for French industry and government to rethink military space given what other space powers are doing, whether openly or in secret. She said the Defense Ministry was prepared to engage French New Space companies to field operational hardware more quickly, even if that meant loosening testing and on-board redundancy requirements.

She said she was not among those smirking at U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent announcement that a Space Force would be created.

“I heard lots of people mock this announcement,” Early said. “I don’t completely share this point of view because I see i this a powerful signal of confrontations to come, and the prominence of space in [U.S.] thinking. Let’s review our space governance with realism and pragmatism — and without taboos.”