France follows Russia, China and the US in creating a space command

The move by France was the latest sign that the era of fighting in space - disabling or even shooting down satellites on which warfare on Earth is increasingly dependent - was getting closer. PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS (NYTIMES) - Thousands of soldiers paraded down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, on foot, on horseback, in tanks and even on a flying hoverboard. But the real action, increasingly, was somewhere far away: outer space.

President Emmanuel Macron of France set the stage for Sunday's (July 14) annual Bastille Day military parade by announcing the creation of a space command within France's air force.

Stressing that France and Europe's independence was at stake, the president said that the command would "ensure our defence of space within space."

The move by France, the Continent's leader in space, was the latest sign that the era of fighting in space - disabling or even shooting down satellites on which warfare on Earth is increasingly dependent - was getting closer.

"Space is increasingly seen as a strategic asset, not only by the major space powers, but also by secondary powers like France," said Mr Jean-Jacques Tortora, director of the European Space Policy Institute in Vienna. "Space might potentially be the theatre of military operations, and this justifies the setting up of dedicated space commands to manage these sorts of operations."

But for now, Europe is playing catch-up. Pooling resources has helped Europe keep its leadership in the civilian use of space, experts say. But when it comes to militarising space, Europe remains divided, with France facing resistance from Germany and other nations.

The result is that Europe's military capacity in space ranks far behind the United States, China and Russia. The lack of a unified vision could constrain France's ambitions for its space command.

In space-related activities in Europe, "France is the biggest and most important country, but going it alone would be close to impossible," said Professor Thomas Hoerber from the Essca School of Management and co-editor of the book, "European Space Policy."

Just as Mr Macron was set to announce the creation of the space command, Galileo, Europe's satellite navigation system and its biggest joint project in space, was experiencing a systemwide "outage." All of its 22 orbiting satellites had gone offline. "The signals are not to be used," Galileo's operators said.

Instead, Galileo's users, including owners of the latest smartphones, were switched to signals from America's Global Positioning System or other competitors.

Galileo represented a united Europe's lofty ambitions to carve out, in space, a place for itself among the world's traditional and rising powers. But the systemwide shutdown was a reminder of how those ambitions have often been undermined by the European Union's competing national interests and comparable lack of resources.

Last year, the European Commission said it would merge its space-related activities in a single body called the EU Space Programme.

Emphasizing the need for European autonomy, the commission announced a budget of 16 billion euros (S$24.45 billion) from 2021 to 2027, a 44 per cent increase over the previous six-year period.

Most of the money would go to programmes with mainly civilian uses, like Galileo and Copernicus, a satellite observation system that allows for the precise monitoring of earth from space.

More satellites would be added to Copernicus' constellation, increasing its capacity to monitor the environment and climate change, as well as manage the security at borders and at sea.

The plan also calls for increasing military capacity by beefing up the Governmental Satellite Communications system, which provides "access to secure satellite communications for national authorities." The growing threats in space, some experts said, could soften the view of Germany and other European nations toward military use.

"So France starts first," Mr Tortora said, "and will call the more motivated to join."

Last year, US President Donald Trump called for the establishment of a space force as a sixth branch of the US armed forces. Russia created its own space command in 2011. And China identified space as a critical part of its military strategy in a 2015 white paper on defense.

For France - a nation with long-standing military and civilian ambitions in space and with the biggest budget devoted to space activities in Europe - joining the club was a natural step, said Mr Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of the Centre National d'Études Spatiales, the French space agency.

"We already had a strong military programme in space," Mr Le Gall said. "So it was logical to have a more structured organisation."

France's defence minister, Ms Florence Parly, laid the groundwork for the establishment of the space command by disclosing one incident in a speech last year.

A Russian satellite, Luch-Olymp, had come "a little too close" to an orbiting French-Italian satellite, named Athena-Fidus, that the two allies had used since 2014 to exchange secure military information, Parly said.

"Trying to listen to your neighbours is not only unfriendly, it's an act of espionage," she said.

A parliamentary report, prepared by two lawmakers allied with Mr Macron, warned that changes to France's space policies were necessary so that "outer space does not become the Achilles' heel of our armed forces or our society."

Under the government's plan, the space command will be staffed initially with 200 military personnel and headquartered in Toulouse, site of the French space agency and Airbus' headquarters.

Over the next six years, France plans to devote 3.6 billion euros to defence in space, out of a 295 billion euro military budget. The money would go toward replacing all of its satellites and modernizing a radar surveillance system in space.

France is expected to reveal more details soon about its space command, which is scheduled to become operational in September.

The command could start a debate in Europe about the weaponisation of space, even as European views have been changing, including toward its biggest joint project, Galileo.

Two decades ago, some European nations, like France, emphasised Galileo's strategic importance in lessening dependence on the US GPS system, while others stressed its economic potential. Still others, like Britain, initially opposed it because of its implicit challenge to US interests.

The project suffered from major budget overruns and delays. But after the satellite navigation system became operational in a pilot phase in 2016, its backers could stress the positive. Europe now had its own autonomous system - one even more accurate than the US GPS.

That is, when it works.

A "technical incident" related to Galileo's "ground infrastructure" was blamed for the problems, which lasted about a week.

"This is the biggest problem Galileo has ever had - the first time there's been a systemwide shutdown," said Mr Arnaud Landragin, a satellite navigation expert at the Time-Space Reference Systems of the Paris Observatory, one of the research centres that helps Galileo adjust its atomic clocks.

It was a setback for Europe, which has urged its members to use Galileo over its rivals.

"If you're asking this to be the go-to service," Mr Landragin said, "you have to make sure it works 24 hours, seven days a week."

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