24 July 2019
Germany wary of Macron's space force
by Joshua Posaner
French President Emmanuel Macron | Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images
BERLIN — Emmanuel Macron's race into space makes Germans nervous.
The French government is poised to lay out details on Thursday of a plan to staff up a “space high command” in Toulouse, as it expands the remit of its air force to cover orbital defense and ward off potential threats to infrastructure in space from big powers including China, Russia and India.
Macron unveiled the broad outlines of the plan during Bastille Day celebrations this month, saying it would help the country “better protect our satellites.”
But the French president's agenda, unveiled in the midst of France's biggest national celebration, sits uneasily with Germany's preference for a multilateral approach to military and defense issues.
“We need a robust answer to the challenges in space but I see this as a job for the European Space Agency and the EU,” Thomas Jarzombek, the German government’s coordinator on aerospace and a lawmaker in the Bundestag, told POLITICO.
“There appears to be a big difference of opinion between Paris and Berlin on this issue, with Paris being the more hawkish" — Daniel Porras, space defense expert
For decades, France has been more interested in a high level of military autonomy than Germany. Paris withdrew from NATO's integrated military command in 1966 and only rejoined in 2009. France has also shown itself ready to undertake military operations abroad, on its own or with ad-hoc coalitions of allies, if it considers such missions in its national interest.
Germany, due to its history, has been much more wary of foreign military missions and prefers to operate within established organizations such as NATO. In the EU's nascent defense cooperation projects, Berlin has pushed to have as many member countries take part as possible while France has favored moving more quickly, with a smaller number of countries participating if necessary.
The contrasting approaches are now surfacing in space policy, as NATO prepares to formally designate space as a new domain of warfare at a summit in December.
European space activities have historically been coordinated by the European Space Agency based in Paris, in which France and Germany are the strongest players alongside the U.K.
In his announcement, Macron was careful to say that the plans should fit with a “European framework” but he also said the move is meant to strengthen France's “strategic autonomy.”
And the president’s insistence that the country must launch an “active” defense of its array of space-based infrastructure — key to communication networks, as well as intelligence, navigation and surveillance — has raised questions over whether he wants to develop offensive capabilities that could be deployed by France alone.
“There appears to be a big difference of opinion between Paris and Berlin on this issue, with Paris being the more hawkish,” said Daniel Porras, who works on space defense at the Geneva-based United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research.
Germany’s new defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, this week mooted ramping up spending on the military, but did not mention space in her first speech in the job.
Space race 2.0
An acceleration in aerospace technology ahead of the moon landing in 1969 prompted countries to sign up to the U.N.’s Outer Space Treaty, which bans the deployment of nuclear warheads and weapons of mass destruction in orbit, or their installation on celestial bodies.
But a new phase of militarization is now afoot.
Russia is regarded as a leader in jamming systems for satellites. France accused Moscow last year of trying to snoop on its communications. China is investing heavily in orbital drones. In March, India successfully hit a satellite at an altitude of about 300 kilometers using a specially developed missile in a test mission.
In 2018, U.S. President Donald Trump agreed to launch an American space force as a distinct sixth pillar of the American military in response to emerging threats.
NATO’s upcoming decision — widely viewed as a response to Trump’s move — is expected to mean that leaders of the countries covered by the defense cooperation alliance will formally acknowledge that war can now also be waged in space.
Some, however, are cautioning against running away with the idea of the galaxy becoming the new theater of war.
Rather than a renaissance of Rods from God-type systems — theoretical weapons developed by the U.S. in the 1980s to unleash devastating missile attacks from orbit — France’s moves in space defense will likely be wholly technical.
“This is mostly about reorganizing existing space operations and looking to add capabilities in terms of how to defend satellites against possible attack,” said Alexandra Stickings, who works on space policy at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.
“The main challenge is not in space, the challenge is ground stations and cybersecurity" — Thomas Jarzombek, German government coordinator on aerospace
That could include training more specialists to counter jamming or hacking attacks, including by quickly steering satellites onto a different orbit or shifting communication frequencies to dodge snoopers, according to Porras.
It’s expected that Thursday’s announcement will center on placing 230 staff in the southern city of Toulouse.
The plan will not include “weapons pointing to the Earth from space,” France’s Defense Minister Florence Parly told MPs last week. She said the plan is a “determined response ... [to] unfriendly space actors.”
The European Commission has set out its blueprint for the EU’s activities in space from 2021 to 2027, which proposes €16 billion to support civilian programs, including a secure government communications system called Govsatcom, and measures to monitor space debris.
It doesn’t propose actions to help the bloc respond to threats to its infrastructure in space.
However, Brussels is for the first time launching a significant program to fund defense equipment spending, despite strong opposition from left-wing groups to the idea of using EU cash for military purposes.
“These days a lot of people are talking about space defense, but I’m a little bit uncertain if that is the right way,” said Jarzombek, who’s drafting a package of space laws aimed at boosting the competitiveness of Germany's aerospace sector. “The main challenge is not in space, the challenge is ground stations and cybersecurity.”
But whether France pursues a more unilateral course in space defense or partners closely with others, a big European industrial player stands to benefit — Airbus, based in Toulouse. The company will be in line for a boost if France invests more in space defense technology as well as in land, sea, air and cyber defenses.
“Space needs to be considered as the fifth dimension of security policy," Dirk Hoke, the boss of Airbus's Defence and Space division, told POLITICO in an email.
In December, the company launched a new Earth observation satellite for use by France's armed forces from a space port in French Guyana. The detailed mapping from the satellite will be shared with armed forces in Germany, Belgium and Sweden as part of a joint military project.
“Europe stands a much better chance of being competitive with the major space powers as a region as opposed to as individual countries,” said Porras.
Rym Momtaz contributed reporting.