Imagery Proliferation has Diplomatic Cost for France

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PARIS — The head of the French military’s Joint Space Command on July 7 said the proliferation of high-resolution Earth observation imagery around the world has undermined the diplomatic value of France’s own surveillance satellites.

French air force Brig. Gen. Jean-Daniel Teste did not suggest there was any way to reverse a situation in which anyone with a credit card and Internet access can now collect images that a decade ago were the province of very few nations – France among them.

France’s first dedicated military surveillance satellite, Helios 1, was launched in 1995.

Addressing a French parliamentary hearing here on space policy, Teste said it was partly because of Helios imagery that France, in 2003, declined to join the United States in invading Iraq. Teste said Helios imagery provided information on the state of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction that contradicted what U.S. government officials were saying.

“I can tell you this: By not participating in the second Gulf War, we were able to save the equivalent of one surveillance satellite per year,” Teste said. “It was a good move.”

U.S. policy changes that have made imagery at increasingly higher resolutions available commercially — last year the limit was changed from 50 centimeters, or sharp enough to detect features that size and larger, to 30 centimeters — have afforded reconnaissance capabilities to many nations that otherwise would covet what France has with its satellite fleet.

“It’s not that we are jealously guarding the imagery for ourselves, but it has been a key that we have used to increase our weight on the international scene,” Teste said. “Many nations would like to have the access that we do to imagery. The multiplication of actors now appearing, making imagery widely available, does raise questions for us.”

Echoing remarks often heard among U.S. military officials, Teste also said that over the years, France’s use of space assets – for telecommunications, Earth observation, positioning and navigation – has created a dependency requiring that attention be paid to protecting space assets and assuring their replacement.

“I am not saying we could not fight a war without them, but there would be a lot more collateral damage,” Teste said.

The French military is Europe’s most active user of space-based assets.

Teste said that unlike other European militaries, French defense forces will not take advantage of lower prices for launch vehicles outside of the family of rockets operated by Evry, France-based Arianespace and launched from Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in South America, which is on French territory.

The French military is resisting, to the extent possible, the trend in Europe and the United States toward privatizing what once were government-only space capabilities.

France’s defense procurement agency, DGA, unsuccessfully battled to keep the production of French strategic missiles outside the purview of Airbus Safran Launchers, a joint venture that will be responsible for Europe’s Ariane 6 rocket.

Airbus Safran Launchers has said that more than half of its projected 2.5 billion euros ($2.8 billion) in annual revenue will be from its military work, particularly strategic missile production.

The French military also has so far resisted privatizing the operation of French military satellite communications. Britain, Spain, Italy and Germany, in different ways, have introduced the private sector into their military satellite communications programs.

Germany and Italy have both launched military satellites aboard non-European rockets. Teste did not mention these nations, but said France will not follow this trend.

“It is inconceivable for us to launch French military satellites aboard anything other than Ariane rockets,” Teste told the hearing. “Other European nations don’t have the same policy.”

Acknowledging later in a brief interview that France’s Pleiades optical reconnaissance satellites were launched aboard Europeanized Russian Soyuz rockets, he said the policy is to limit launches to Arianespace-managed rockets from the French Guiana site.

The Ariane 6 rocket, to be introduced in 2020, comes in two versions that ultimately will replace both the current Ariane 5 and, for medium-lift missions, the Europeanized Soyuz.