France's 2020 Euro vision

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The importance of space to warfare has been obvious since the launch of Sputnik. Decades later France is one of the leading European states that are working to fully exploit the ultimate high ground by the end of this decade.

By 2020 France, with the help of other European countries, intends to have Earth observation, early warning, telecommunication and signals intelligence capabilities (see box). It has a roadmap for the next decade and, recognising that space-based remote sensing has civilian as well as military applications, it has given its space agency CNES €200 million ($286 million) a year from 2009 to 2014 to develop the dual-use technologies needed. Other, civilian, uses include police and border control.

The French model to date has been to provide the vast majority of funding for military satellites. Third party countries coming on board get, in return for contributions as large as 14% and as small as 2.5%, access to the spacecraft and their data.

France's Helios observation programme saw its fourth spacecraft, 2B, built by EADS Astrium launched on 18 December by an Arianespace Ariane 5. Helios 1 involved Italy and Spain and then for Helios 2 Belgium, joined by Greece. Sweden and Poland may also join the consortium.

Once 2B is operational it will join 1A and 2A, which have been operational since 1995 and 2004 respectively. France's DGA procurement agency says: "Each nation can use these satellites as it wants." Helios 1B, launched in 1999, has been retired after five years. As well as participating nations' access to Helios imagery since 2007 the spacecrafts' data has been provided to the European Union.

helios 2b was launched by an arianespace ariane 5 © arianespace
 © Arianespace
Helios 2B was launched by an Arianespace Ariane 5 Generic

The EU requires space-based capabilities as part of its security and defence policy. Helios imagery was used by European forces conducting peace-keeping operations in Chad, for example. Because of this the EU's European Defence Agency, a procurement body, is now involved in the Multinational Space-based Imaging System, also known as Musis. Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain are involved in Musis, which intends to provide visible, radar and infrared imagery.

But while the EDA's involvement in such a six-nation partnership might seem like a more pan-European approach, European Space Policy Institute research fellow Wolfgang Rathgeber is not expecting the EU to take the lead. "It is not clear what [EU member state] nations want."

Future military satellites

Observation The Helios constellation will be joined by Pleiades this year. Musis would replace Helios from 2014.

Signals intelligence After two technology demonstrators, France is working with Sweden and Greece on spacecraft Ceres.

Telecoms France is to co-operate with Italy on its Sicral 2 spacecraft for telecoms. France's Syracuse 3C payload is to be on board Sicral 2. Syracuse 4 will differ from its predecessors, with its deployment using the public-private partnership model.

Early warning From 2012 France is developing a geostationary early-warning satellite to monitor countries developing long-range missiles. France would like other European countries to participate.

A specialist in security, Rathgeber sees national programmes persisting, but if a switch to a more EU-centric approach is to be taken, "the time to decide is now". Time is of the essence because, for spacecraft due to be retired towards the end of the decade, replacement decisions have to be taken imminently.

For its own future military spacecraft, France has already flown technology demonstrators. For signals intelligence, a demonstrator that has been operating since December 2004 will shut by the middle of this year.

It will be replaced by a second demonstrator that will work for three years after its launch this year with the Earth observation Pleiades spacecraft. For France's planned early warning satellite, two technology demonstrator micro-satellites called Spirale were launched in 2009.

One area that may see a European solution is telecoms. EADS Astrium has been awarded a contract by the European Defence Agency to study a "one-stop shop" for EU governments to procure military satellite communications capacity.

The UK, not a participant in the French-led satellite projects, has used a public-private partnership model for its military telecommunications constellation called Skynet. France is planning to use a public private partnership for its next generation of telecommunication satellites Syracuse 4, but Rathgeber is aware of discussions about a possible lease back of older Syracuse spacecraft.

Syracuse 3A and 3B, which became operational in the last decade, are to provide telecoms until 2018.

The other key space-based capability for military forces is navigation. The US government's Navstar GPS is the standard for NATO forces, but France is also keen to use Europe's planned Galileo system. A French government programme called Omega will equip units with Galileo receiver terminals.

From the first Gulf war to the former Yugoslavia, Africa's Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Chad and more recently Afghanistan, French troops and their European allies have been engaged in many conflicts since the end of the cold war. Whatever else emerges before 2020, French troops will know their government has many eyes in the sky.