Gen. Philippe Adam, Commander of Space (CDE), joins Gen. Stephen Whiting, Commander of US Space Command (USSC), alongside representatives from other nations who have been invited to join Operation Olympic Defender. (French MoD)

PARIS — France remains undecided about an offer from US Space Command to take part in Operation Olympic Defender, the US-led initiative to strengthen defense and deter hostility in space — but says that if it does join up, it will not be turning over operational control of its military space capabilities to its US allies.

Gen. Philippe Adam, France’s Space Force commander, told media that France had been invited, together with Germany and New Zealand, to join the initiative. In parallel, the Ministry of the Armed Forces announced that “This invitation opens new operational perspectives and carries a message of strategic solidarity,” stressing that “France will maintain operational control over all its military space capabilities.”

While a spokesperson stressed that no decision had yet been made, the phrasing of the Ministry statement indicates it may be more a matter of when, not if, Paris signs up.

Olympic Defender is the US military’s operational plan for warfighting in space, first opened to allies in 2020, with Australia, Canada and the UK currently part of the effort.  Gen. Stephen Whiting, commander of US Space Command, had officially invited the three new nations to join on April 9 at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.

Geopolitically, the US invitation is significant as it reflects the Pentagon’s desire to more tightly tie its allies into its efforts to deter, and if it comes to it, defend against hostile Chinese and Russian activities.

“We share intelligence, we plan together, and we work to ensure that space is safe for all. And we’re working to even improve our integration through improved command and control and planning to make sure that we get even better in the future,” Whiting said in his keynote at the Space Symposium.

France’s acceptance is a signal that Paris, at least, is on board with SPACECOM’s intentions to use both defensive and offensive measures to take out adversary space capabilities in any future battle.

A spokesperson for the New Zealand military said the country “is considering the invitation.” A spokesperson from the German embassy in the US did not respond by press time.

Radar Investments Needed

As part of a wide-ranging interview with reporters, organized for members of France’s Association of Defense Journalists, Adam took time to stress the need for an additional GRAVES (Grand Réseau Adapté à la Veillle Spatiale) radar-based space surveillance system — which could prove to be a pricey challenge.

The current system, which has been operational since Dec. 15, 2005. Its function is to keep an eye on objects in low Earth orbits (between 400 to 1,000 km) that are larger than 10cm in diameter. The system was so effective it caused a minor international incident when it uncovered previously unknown Chinese and US spy satellites.

Having only one GRAVES radar means France cannot continuously track satellites, as it loses them on the other side of the globe. “If we had two it would be better, with the second one most likely based in French Guyana, but more would be ideal,” Adam  said.

Combined with its age, it’s clear France needs to invest in a replacement. The problem is that while the original was developed for just €30 million by state-run aerospace research laboratory ONERA, now, “We are being quoted hundreds of millions of euros to develop the next generation radar,” he complained, “and I need at least two of them.”

The GRAVES system fits into the French Space Force’s “Active Defense” posture, Adam said. He defined this as a three-pronged approach: detecting an anomaly, which is where GRAVES comes into play; understanding what it is i.e. is it a threat or an error and finally, taking action —“which is newer, and for this we are developing a patroller.”

By “patroller,” he was referring to Yoda (Yeux en Orbite pour un Démonstrateur Agile), a project led by the CNES national center for space studies, to develop two demonstrator nano-satellites each weighing between 10 to 20 kg which will fly at a geostationary orbit of 35,786 km. These will be used to validate technologies used to approach a satellite and to train operators, according to a National Defense and Armed Forces Commission parliamentary report by Jean-Jacques Ferrara.

Yoda would probably remain in orbit for five to 10 years and then be replaced by a heavier (100kg or so), operational patroller armed with a laser, potentially operational as soon as 2030.

The program was launched in September 2018 when Florence Parly, the Armed Forces minister at the time, revealed that Russian satellite Luch-Olymp had a year earlier approached one of the Franco-Italian Athenas Fidus satellites dedicated to military communications in. It “got so close that we really thought it was trying to capture our communications. But trying to listen to your neighbours is not only unfriendly. It’s called espionage,” she said. (France had to cut communication with its satellite twice as a security measure.)

Adam noted that existing threats included jamming, listening, laser illumination, sabotage, cyber-attacks, anti-satellite missiles and orbital threats. “And there’s another which will come one day and that is directed energy weapons” he remarked.

Need For Improved Training

One of the major roles of the French Air Force is to police the nation’s airspace. “Well, ours is a little bit like policing space,” Adam said, “but there are no borders, everyone has the right to be there and we all cross paths so we have to take into account all the users of space.”

To help train Space Force personnel to do so, France created the AsterX exercise “which is unique in Europe,” Adam said. “We are extremely pleased to have this tool because the results largely outweigh our initial expectations.”

The fourth edition was held from March 4-15, at the Space Centre in Toulouse. This year, 15 foreign partners — Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, Poland, Portugal, Romania, South Korea, Spain, the UAE, Untitd Kingdom, and United States — attended the exercise. There were 140 participants (civilians included), 27 foreign players, 30 foreign observers, three institutional partners (CNES, ONERA and the NATO Space Centre of Excellence) and seven industrial partners, including Arianespace, Exotrail, MBDA and Safran.

The exercise provides “training in the most realistic, if simulated, environment possible” and this was the first year with red and blue teams playing an unscripted scenario, Adam said.

Training and operations should only get easier by the end of 2025, with the opening of the brand-new €80 million ($86.6 million) Space Force centre in Toulouse, just next to the CNES. Two-thirds of the building will be attributed to the 500 staff of the Space Force whilst one-third will house the NATO Space Centre of Excellence.

Theresa Hitchens in Washington and Tim Fish in New Zealand contributed to this report.