Europe answering Paris’ call

An article published by Gaspard Schnitzler for the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI).


Perceived as closely linked to the idea of strategic autonomy, control of access to outer space and freedom of action in space are paramount to France. There are two main reasons for this: the close link between space and nuclear deterrence, and the dependency of modern military operations on space capabilities.

Born in the 1950s, out of General de Gaulle’s desire to provide France with a launcher able of carrying a nuclear payload, the French space programme is by nature, and since its inception, dual. With the launch of its first satellite, Asterix, by the Diamant A rocket in 1965, France became the third space power in the world, behind the USSR and the United States. This pioneering role, which France strives to maintain, can be considered as the common thread of the French space policy. It also explains why France is the largest contributor to the European Space Agency’s budget (23% in 2021) and has the second largest space budget per capita in the world (more than 35€ per inhabitant/year).

Sixty years after the creation of the National Center for Space Studies (CNES) in December 1961, symbolizing the official launch of the French space programme, where does France’s space policy stand? What are its priorities and the challenges it faces, whether from an industrial or military point of view? This article provides a brief overview of the main current developments in French space policy.

A changing military approach to space

For the past twenty years, the space sector has been undergoing a profound upheaval under the effect of two phenomena: on the one hand, the liberalisation of access to space, generated by the progressive opening of the sector to private commercial actors (e.g. NewSpace) and, on the other hand, the return of space competition due to the hardening of great powers relations. Both phenomena result in a multiplication of space activities, the emergence of new threats and an increasing weaponization of space, posing the challenge of stakeholder coexistence, as well as the control of access and action in space.

While the armed forces’ dependence on space capabilities has grown steadily with technological progress, France has decided to strengthen its space posture and the resilience of its space capabilities. The most significant examples of France’s overhauled approach to military space, are the transformation of the French Air Force to an “Air and Space Force”, the establishment of a Space Command (CDE [1]) in 2019 and the subsequent adoption of a Space Defence Strategy [2] in 2020, a first in Europe.

Based on an analysis of the space environment, its threats and opportunities, this ambitious document intends to serve as a roadmap until 2030. It sets several objectives in the field of space doctrine, capability building and space governance, including:

  • The strengthening of France’s ability to identify and characterise unfriendly or hostile acts in space [3], through enhanced space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities;

  • The development of new space capabilities dedicated to operational support (observation, communication and intelligence satellites [4]), through an increasing space defence budget (4.3bn€ over 2019-2025 [5]);

  • The strengthening of space assets, especially through active space defence capabilities, to discourage any adversary from undermining them;

  • The definition and promotion of rules and international standards of behaviour;

  •  The modernisation of both the industrial model and the space governance, especially by encouraging organisational and financial synergies, to maintain the competitiveness of the French DTIB [6] and preserve Europe’s independent space launch capability.

The main lesson to be drawn from this pragmatic strategy, which claims a form of pragmatism, is the evolution of France’s space doctrine from passive to active defence.

In the face of growing threats (development of ASAT weapons, jamming, spying…), the country considers that military space operations can no longer solely be Earth-centred, but must also be space-oriented. The acquisition of a genuine capability for action in space by 2030, in the framework of the new ARES [7] capability programme, is the most telling example of this new doctrine of space operations. Its first step is the development of the YODA [8] ‘patrol satellite’ demonstrator, to be launched in 2023.

On the legal front, France opposes Russia and China’s proposals aimed at banning certain types of weapons in space, preferring an approach focused on the prohibition of certain behaviours [9], a position shared by most Western countries

Towards more EU cooperation

Aware that it cannot act alone given the scope of new challenges and threats posed by the ongoing transformation of space behaviours, France considers European and international cooperation vital. Although Australia, Canada, India, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States [10] are identified as key partners by the Space Defence Strategy, priority is given to European cooperation, and especially to Franco-German and Franco-Italian cooperation. Indeed, for many years now, France maintains a privileged relationship with both countries, through specific military space cooperation agreements – the Turin (2001) and Schwerin (2002) agreements – which results in an enhanced cooperation in the fields of Earth observation and military communications [11], as well as in close industrial ties [12]. In the future, cooperation should be extended to space situational awareness, especially as France and Germany share complementary capabilities (the GRAVES and GESTRA radars).

France, which sees space cooperation as a way of reinforcing Europe’s defence and thus its strategic autonomy, is now calling for a more ambitious approach to space defence, by moving from a capability-oriented cooperation to a true operational cooperation. The organization in 2021 of AsterX [13], Europe’s first multinational [14] military space exerciseled by the new French Space Command, is part of this logic. It was conducted with the aim of testing space systems’ resilience and assessing future space operational needs.

Seeking the sharing of a common vision of the strategic challenges of space, prior to any operational cooperation, France promotes the idea of a European Space Defence Strategy (which could be adopted in 2023 according to the Strategic Compass’ [15] latest draft) and the establishment of a European Space Command.

However, France’s desire to federate and its aspiration to a leading role in Europe on space defence issues, comes up against some differences in perception, as well as rivalries at industrial level, notably with its German neighbour [16]. Thus, while France defends a strategic vision of space, other countries, such as Germany, pursue an industrial catch-up logic and see space primarily from an economical and industrial point of view.

Nevertheless, the recent creation of space commands in Italy (2020) and in Germany (2021) appear to reflect a growing awareness of the importance of space-related defence issues.

Between adaptation and resistance to change

The creation of the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou (CSG) in 1964, Europe’s main spaceport, with the aim of offering the country an independent and reliable access to space, as well as its pioneering role in Europe’s launcher programmes (Europa in the 1960s and then Ariane), illustrates how France has historically been at the forefront of space launchers development and continues to do so. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that preserving Europe’s independent space launch capability remains one of the key priorities of France’s space policy.

However, the increase in global competition, the emergence of new private players bringing major technological shifts (digitalisation, miniaturisation, use of AI, additive manufacturing…) and the evolution of the space sector towards increasingly commercial activities, disrupt Europe’s traditional space business model. If at first France did not take the emergence of these new competitors seriously, pursuing the renewal of Ariane 5 by a non-reusable launcher (Ariane 6), Paris finally seems to have taken the measure of the competition at stake and the need to rethink Europe’s industrial space model to stay in the race.

Thus, to remain a leading space power, France (and more broadly Europe) had no other choices than to address the weaknesses of its model (too expensive and non-reusable launchers, high fixed costs, insufficient launch rate…), especially by rethinking the design of its heavy-lift launchers, Ariane 6 and its successor Ariane Next. Thus, the upper stage restart capability of Ariane 6 should reduce launching costs by 40%, while the low-cost reusable Prometheus engine and the Themis reusable launcher first stage prototype (both under-development) should make Europe’s future generation of launchers more competitive. France, Germany, and Italy’s commitment to European preference for institutional launches should also help achieving this objective.

This growing awareness also appears in the « France 2030 » recovery plan, which dedicates 1.5bn€ additional funding to space investments, with two major objectives: catching up in certain key market segments (i.e. reusable launchers or constellations) and investing in new uses (i.e. space surveillance, in-orbit services, space data exploitation…). While France was initially hostile to the development of reusable mini-launchers, perceiving Germany’s support to the emergence of a domestic mini- and micro-launchers industry [17] as competition to Ariane and Vega, it has finally reviewed its approach. In December 2021, the country launched Maïa Space, designed to promote the emergence of a French reusable mini-launch vehicle industry by 2026, and announced the future creation in Kourou of a new launch pad dedicated to mini- and micro-launchers.

Despite industrial competition and differing approaches on some issues, France sees space industrial cooperation as key for European competitiveness and pleads for greater industrial integration in the space sector. Hence, France signed bilateral declarations with Germany and Italy on the future of European space launchers in 2021 and is engaging in several initiatives to support and develop a strong European space industry base. [18]


[1] Commandement de l’espace

[2] Stratégie spatiale de défense, ministère des Armées, 2019.

[3] i.e. The 2017 manoeuvres of Russia’s Luch-Olymp satellite near the Franco-Italian Athena-Fidus satellite.

[4] It provides the entry into service of several new major capabilities (CSO-3 observation satellite, Syracyse-4 communication satellites and CERES electromagnetic listening satellites), as well as the launch of two major programmes (IRIS and CELESTE), intended to replace the CSO and CERES satellites by 2028.

[5] The initial 3.6bn€ budget provided by the current military programming law (LPM 2019-2025) was increased by 700m€.

[6] Defence technological and industrial base.

[7] Action et Résilience Spatiale (“Action and Space Resilience”)

[8] Yeux en Orbite pour un Démonstrateur Agile (“Eyes in Orbit for an Agile Demonstrator”)

[10] i.e. France and Germany are part of the Five Eye’s Combined Space Operations Initiative (CSpO), with the aim of consolidating an allied military space community.

[11] Cooperation in the field of Earth observation with Italy and Germany (access to German SAR-Lupe and SARah satellites, as well as to Italian satellite COSMO-SkyMed, in exchange for access to French Helios and CSO satellites), and cooperation in the field of military telecommunications with Italy (joint development of the Sicral-2 and Athena-Fidus satellites).

[12] i.e. Airbus Defence & Space and Thales Alenia Space.

[13] Named after the 1st French satellite “Astérix”, launched in 1965.

[14] Germany, Italy and the United States took part in this exercise.

[15] A Strategic Compass for Security and Defence, Working document of the European External Action Services, Jan. 6, 2022, p. 21.

[16] i.e. the 2017 German decision to entrust the production of 2 optical observation satellites (GEORG) to German manufacturer OHB (Airbus D&S’s main competitor) was seen in France as a ‘betrayal’, going against the spirit of the Schwerin agreement, which provided for a distribution of competences between France (optical observation) and Germany (radar observation).

[17] i.e. By supporting start-ups such as Isar Aerospace and Rocket Factory Augsburg.

[18] i.e. The SpaceFounders programme, jointly run by CNES and the Bundeswehr University (UniBw), with the aim of supporting the emergence of European space start-ups.
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