Emmanuel Macron attended Friday March 12 the first French space military exercise at CNES (National Center for Space Studies) in Toulouse. The operation is called AsterX, in reference to the Petit Gaulois and the first French satellite launched in 1965. This exercise “participates in what can be called space deterrence”, explains on franceinfo the air brigade general Jean-Daniel Testé, CEO of the OTA (Observation de la Terre applied), a space security consultancy company.
franceinfo: Is the idea to simulate a conflict above our heads?
Jean-Daniel Tested: It is much more than that. The main thing is to train staff. You know, we have wonderful toys in space, fabulous objects that were manufactured by our manufacturers who are among the best in the world. Of course, we have to protect them, but to protect them, we always tend to forget that we need operators on the ground. The main goal of this exercise is to acculturate even more military operators with CNES operators to operations that can take place in space. It’s not just the conflict. Conflict is at the top of the spectrum. At the lower end of the spectrum, it’s colliding with debris because it happens regularly.
Our satellites in low orbit – there are a number of them that take pictures for some, telecommunications for others – are often threatened by space debris which has been in full proliferation in recent years.Jean-Daniel Tested
These satellites, you should know that they are in orbits that can bring them in conjunction with space debris. And when that’s the case, you have to do what are called space operations, that is, maneuver them to avoid this space debris and avoid irreparable damage.
Can there also be espionage attempts?
Indeed, I think the minister [des Armées] Florence Parly spoke about it very well in 2017 and I would say that it is the example that is being exchanged today throughout the international community, even if there are many others that we cannot necessarily talk about. the same way. So, indeed, we had a Franco-Italian telecommunications satellite called Athena-Fidus, which was approached by a Russian satellite, which approached very close to our telecommunications satellite. These satellites are in geostationary orbit, that is to say very far above the Earth. Knowing what is really going on there is not very easy. There are a lot of speculations, but I would say the most likely speculation is that it was a satellite that was positioned there to spy on the communications.
Who, what should we be wary of?
Space has always been a great power rivalry: Russia and the United States during the Cold War, now other countries like China, India, etc. We all remember, the elders of space, the firing of a Chinese anti-satellite missile in 2007 which indeed succeeded in destroying a satellite in low orbit, but in addition which produced thousands and thousands of additional debris, which pollutes even more. This proved that the Chinese had a perfect mastery of this technique of intercepting a satellite in space. The Indians did the same in 2019. They also demonstrated that they were able to go and destroy a satellite in orbit. We see that these countries, which have power issues to assert, are turning towards space and transferring these power issues into space.
We are beginning to witness a transfer of rivalry in the space sector. And that is disturbing for the majority of European countries in particular, which have a desire to use space for peaceful ends and for the benefit of all of society.Jean-Daniel Tested
You can imagine that the Chinese example was revealing: when we are going to destroy a satellite in orbit, of course, all the debris disturbs the orbit and disturbs all the other satellites which are on this slice of orbit. So any event in space has consequences that go far beyond the event itself.
Is this workout meant to show the muscles of France?
It participates in what can be called space deterrence: showing that France is aware of the risks and threats and is preparing for them. This is the first step in deterrence. But in France, there is no inclination to act at the same level as the other countries have acted in the area of space warfare. I think that’s not necessarily one of the goals. But on the other hand, given our society’s dependence on space systems, we must be prepared to protect them in all cases.