French Defense Minister Seeks Wider European Union Role in Imaging, Space Surveillance Programs

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PARIS — The European Union should become a customer for France’s next-generation optical reconnaissance satellite program to permit a third satellite to be built, and should manage a European space situational awareness program that would include French military assets, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.

Le Drian said the two-satellite CSO — a French acronym for Optical Space Component — now under construction needs a third component. He said France would prefer to keep program leadership, and that a third satellite might be financed if the executive commission of the 28-nation European Union entered the program as a customer.

CSO is the planned successor to France’s current Helios-2 military optical reconnaissance spacecraft.

In an interview with the in-house magazine of the French space agency, CNES, Le Drian said France hopes to strike CSO image-sharing arrangements with Germany and Italy, similar to the agreements in place under which French optical images are given to these two nations in exchange for their radar imagery under separate bilateral agreements.

Germany and Italy are developing second-generation radar reconnaissance satellite systems.

“One of the challenges here is to build a third [CSO] satellite to complete the initial constellation, while maintaining the cross-exchange principles established for Helios-2 and protecting France’s position in optical imagery,” Le Drian said. “Access to this imagery also could be opened up to the European Union, under price terms and other restrictions to be defined.”

The European Union’s satellite image-analysis center in Torrejon, Spain, currently has access to Helios-2 imagery under restricted conditions that have long been a subject of debate. France initially wanted to charge the center a per-image fee that was much higher than what the center would pay for commercial imagery from U.S. providers such as DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo.

France allows the European Union Satellite Center access to Helios on a collaborative basis when the center is evaluating regions in which French forces are active as part of a European security operation.

The European Commission, meanwhile, hopes to convince its governments in December, during a defense summit, that they should invest in a space situational awareness program that would begin by collating existing facilities in France, Germany and elsewhere.

France balked at joining a similar effort proposed by the 20-nation European Space Agency (ESA), saying the French Graves radar facility, owned by the French Defense Ministry, would not easily fit into ESA’s civilian structure.

But Le Drian apparently sees no obstacles to Graves and other French ground radars being made part of a European Union effort.

“A European approach would be preferred to sustain existing assets — like the Graves radar — and develop new ones,” Le Drian said. “France would like to see current efforts in this field by the European Commission moving in this direction.”

In the same publication, French air force Gen. Yves Arnaud, chief of France’s Joint Space Command, said the dual-use Pleiades high-resolution optical system, whose two satellites are in orbit, is proof that military and civil/commercial users can share the same assets.

Pleiades operations are managed to give French military forces priority access to a certain number of images per day. Pleiades imagery is also sold globally by Astrium services on a commercial basis.

“With the operational experience gained in the last year or so, we are seeing the benefits of Pleiades in the visible optical spectrum for intelligence, targeting and mapping missions,” Arnaud said, referring to France’s military engagement in Mali. “Multispectral color bands and the ability to acquire multiple images of a theater of operations, with priority tasking combining agility and quick response, are key advantages for forces in the field.

“[Pleiades] also meets the military requirement for effective protection of tasking and imagery data. … Pleiades has proved that a dual-use Earth observation system is technically and operationally feasible. Its success paves the way for future dual-use military space programs.”