18 Jul France Nudges Europe Into Space Race, Where It Lags Behind
PARIS â Thousands of soldiers paraded down the Avenue des Champs-ÃlysÃ©es, 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 Sundayâs annual Bastille Day military parade by announcing the creation of a space command within Franceâs air force.
Stressing that France and Europeâs independence was at stake, the president said that the command would âensure our defense of space within space.â
The move by France, the Continentâs leader in space, was the latest sign that the era of fighting in space â disabling or even shooting down satellites on which warfare on earth is increasingly dependent â was getting closer.
âSpace is increasingly seen as a strategic asset, not only by the major space powers, but also by secondary powers like France,â said Jean-Jacques Tortora, director of the European Space Policy Institute in Vienna. âSpace might potentially be the theater of military operations, and this justifies the setting up of dedicated space commands to manage these sorts of operations.â
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 militarizing space, Europe remains divided, with France facing resistance from Germany and other nations.
The result is that Europeâs military capacity in space ranks far behind the United States, China and Russia. The lack of a unified vision could constrain Franceâs ambitions for its space command.
In space-related activities in Europe, âFrance is the biggest and most important country, but going it alone would be close to impossible,â said Thomas Hoerber, a professor at the Essca School of Management and co-editor of the book, âEuropean Space Policy.â
Mr. Macron hinted as much in his speech announcing the creation of the space command. While he spoke of reinforcing Franceâs âstrategic autonomy,â he added that it must take place in a âEuropean framework.â
But even there, the challenges were apparent.
Just as Mr. Macron was set to announce the creation of the space command, Galileo, Europeâs satellite navigation system and its biggest joint project in space, was experiencing a systemwide âoutage.â
All of its 22 orbiting satellites had gone offline. âThe signals are not to be used,â Galileoâs operators said.
Instead, Galileoâs users, including owners of the latest smartphones, were switched to signals from Americaâs Global Positioning System or other competitors.
Galileo represented a united Europeâs lofty ambitions to carve out, in space, a place for itself among the worldâs traditional and rising powers. But the systemwide shutdown was a reminder of how those ambitions have often been undermined by the European Unionâs 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 E.U. Space Program.
Emphasizing the need for European autonomy, the commission announced a budget of 16 billion euros from 2021 to 2027, about $18 billion, a 44 percent increase over the previous six-year period.
Most of the money would go to programs 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 Copernicusâs 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 âaccess to secure satellite communications for national authorities.â
The growing threats in space, some experts said, could soften the view of Germany and other European nations toward military use.
âSo France starts first,â Mr. Tortora said, âand will call the more motivated to join.â
Last year, President Trump called for the establishment of a space force as a sixth branch of the American 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 â a nation with longstanding military and civilian ambitions in space and with the biggest budget devoted to space activities in Europe â joining the club was a natural step, said Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of the Centre National dâÃtudes Spatiales, the French space agency.
âWe already had a strong military program in space,â Mr. Le Gall said. âSo it was logical to have a more structured organization.â
Franceâs defense minister, 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 âa little too closeâ to an orbiting French-Italian satellite, named Athena-Fidus, that the two allies had used since 2014 to exchange secure military information, Ms. Parly said.
âTrying to listen to your neighbors is not only unfriendly, itâs an act of espionage,â she said.
A parliamentary report, prepared by two lawmakers allied with Mr. Macron, warned that changes to Franceâs space policies were necessary so that âouter space does not become the Achillesâ heel of our armed forces or our society.â
Under the governmentâs plan, the space command will be staffed initially with 200 military personnel and headquartered in Toulouse, the site of the French space agency and Airbusâs headquarters.
Over the next six years, France plans to devote â¬3.6 billion to defense in space, out of a â¬295 billion military…