PARIS — A French parliamentary committee endorsed a missile defense program July 12 centered on space-based warning and interception as a way to protect France primarily from being outdistanced by the United States in missile technology, and secondarily from potential missile attack.

The French Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense and the Armed Forces said that while the actual risk of a ballistic missile strike against the French mainland is remote, a missile defense effort undertaken by the NATO alliance without substantial French participation would present a clear danger for the nation’s industrial base.

The committee’s 259-page report, “Ballistic Missile Defense: Military Shield or Strategic Challenge?” urges the French administration to take steps to position France as a major contributor to whatever territorial missile defense program is eventually approved by the 28-nation NATO alliance.

NATO heads of state are scheduled to meet in May 2012 to discuss how to proceed with a program that would extend long-running preparations for theater missile defense to defense of the whole of Europe’s territory. NATO governments agreed to build such a system in November 2010, but have not yet funded its full development.

If U.S. industry is alone in being able to develop a missile defense architecture, it will run away not only with the relevant NATO contracts, but also with a lead in a suite of technologies that the report’s authors view as too valuable to be surrendered.

Ultimately, the report says, if France remains on the sidelines of developments in precision missile strike and space-based missile interception, the French nuclear deterrent’s power will erode.

Echoing a proposal recently made by Astrium Space Transportation — France’s prime contractor for ballistic missiles and one of the companies whose technology edge is presumed to be at stake — the report calls for France to begin development of an operational missile warning satellite system. Total estimated cost: 700 million euros ($980 million) over 10 years.

The missile warning satellite would be accompanied by early development an exoatmospheric missile interception system whose cost is estimated at 270 million euros.

Collateral investments in a command-and-control capability tailored to missile defense, a demonstrator model of a long-range ground-based radar and a national missile defense center would bring the total cost of what the committee is proposing to 1.62 billion euros over 10 years.

The report says France’s longstanding interest in missile defense systems has not been enough to encourage other European nations to agree to a joint program. When it comes to missile defense, the report says, most Europeans “are unmotivated and uninvolved” — all the more so when Europe’s economies are struggling with public debt and slow growth.

The authors say France could, at a minimum, be content with paying its 12 percent share of any NATO-approved missile defense effort. But this, they say, would be tantamount to sending cash to the United States, in addition to watching U.S. companies harvest the technology spinoffs.

The experience of missile defense in the United States gives pause about any similar investment in France, according to the report. The performance of the U.S. missile defense effort is difficult to judge, and its costs are high. Set against this background is the fact that, according to the report, few French military strategists place missile attack at the top of the threat list.

Terrorism, cyber-attack and commitments in Afghanistan, and more recently Libya, are viewed as more deserving of France’s limited defense budget, the report says.

Even Iran, the report says, has not yet demonstrated a ballistic missile with sufficient range to reach the heart of Europe.

“France is faced with a dilemma,” the report says. “It can abdicate what remains of its strategic autonomy, or provide a major contribution [to a NATO effort] at a substantial cost to its budget, and at the risk of sacrificing other programs and other military priorities.”

Keeping France’s autonomy in technologies needed for missile defense, they conclude, is worth the investment.

Astrium Space Transportation in early July submitted an unsolicited proposal to the French arms procurement agency, DGA, for an in-space demonstration of a missile defense system.

An Astrium official said July 13 that the company’s proposal bears a strong resemblance to a broader submission made in July 2010, which is highlighted by the French Senate’s report.

The report says Astrium has outlined a demonstrator mission that would cost about 265 million euros over 5.5 years, ending with the launch of an exoatmospheric kill vehicle equipped with an infrared detector. The vehicle would destroy a target vehicle just outside the atmosphere.

Three-quarters of the mission’s cost would be invested in the kill vehicle, with the remaining 25 percent going toward the launch of both the kill vehicle and its target.

DGA in February 2009 launched two Spirale demonstration satellites to test missile-detection technologies. The two satellites, which due to budgetary constraints had to  operate in a highly elliptical geostationary transfer orbit, were retired in February.

DGA officials have said the Spirale mission was successful in giving the French military a sense of what is needed for an operational missile warning satellite in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers over the equator.

The Senate report says the latest DGA estimates are that a single missile warning satellite would cost more than 700 million euros to build and launch.



Astrium To Propose Exoatmospheric Missile Intercept Demonstration

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.