French space war games point to orbital arms race

French space war games point to orbital arms race

As a UN-led military force moved in to protect the independent nation of Mercury from rival Arnland in French war games this month, the most critical battle was playing out not on land, at sea or in the air, but in orbit.

While European nations argue over what weapons to send Ukraine and whether to add ground troops, France's AsterX drills -- the name is a reference both to French comic character Asterix and the first French satellite launched in 1965 -- brought together 190 participants from France and 15 allies to simulate space warfare.

The French exercise included simulating more than 4,000 objects in space, with an intelligence desk using both telescope and social media information to identify friendly, neutral and potentially hostile items, a capability France does not expect to have fully operational in reality until 2030 at the earliest.

With a budget of US$6 billion (218 billion baht) to build its Space Command between now and then, the French military space capability is considerably smaller than that of the United States -- US Space Command's current annual budget is at least $30 billion, supporting almost 14,000 personnel.

By partnering with the United States for the exercise, however -- as well Japan, Germany, Italy, Britain, South Korea and others -- French officials say they are able to access the deepening network between allied nations.

As well as hosting the French Space Command, the Toulouse base hosting the exercise is also home to Nato's new Space Centre of Excellence. The alliance has also created its own fledgling joint space headquarters at the US Air and Space Forces European HQ at Ramstein in Germany.

French General Philippe Adam, commander of the French Space Command, described the drills -- which have been running annually since 2021 -- as "absolutely essential for our operators, but also our processes, training what we call operational readiness, so we are ready to fight a real war".

The scenario, he said, was inspired by the real world -- including "unfriendly behaviour" by Russian satellites, including unannounced and threatening approaches to Western satellites which, he said, now happened "all the time".


The growing number of other satellites, however, are making low Earth orbit increasingly congested. According to estimates, at least 2,500 satellites were launched in 2023 alone, while Western officials say Moscow and Beijing have invested heavily in a range of space capabilities with a view to challenging Western dominance.

Last month, head of US Space Command Gen Stephen Whiting told the Senate Armed Services Committee that both Russian and Chinese space capabilities were developing "breathtakingly fast" -- and that both US military and civilian space authorities were still optimised for a "benign space environment" rather than one of heightened international competition.

As well as building new capabilities to fight in space, US officials say they need to build direct relations with those running space policy and operations for Beijing in particular.

China is now the only nation to have its own independently operating manned space station in Earth orbit, and has pledged to put its own astronauts on the moon by 2030.

"It's ... important we have a shared understanding with potential adversaries so that there is no miscalculation," Brig Gen Anthony Mastalir, commanding US Space Forces in the Pacific, told the Air and Space Forces Association Warfare Symposium in Colorado last month, suggesting a direct US-China hotline on the topic.

If anything, US cooperation with allies in the Pacific is moving even faster than that in Europe. The United States already has an element of US Space Command in Korea working closely with the government in Seoul, and hopes to set up a similar capability in Japan by the end of the year.


While international tensions are clearly part of driving that expansion, so is the fast-changing face of new technology -- particularly directed-energy weapons that US officials fear could be used to "dazzle" and disable US satellites, missiles and potentially military capabilities on the ground.

Such techniques would likely avoid some of the unintended consequences of satellites and space vehicles physically shooting each other down. A 2007 Chinese anti-satellite missile test produced a vast debris field, parts of which threaten satellites today.

As ever more players develop the ability to put objects into orbit, space looks set to become more and more congested. As China and the United States prepare to return to the moon, the congested space may increasingly include what is called "columnar space", between geosynchronous orbit just over 35,400 kilometres above Earth and the moon itself about 384,600km away.

So far, rockets heading to the moon such as the US-manned Apollo missions and more recent US, Chinese, Indian, Russian and European probes have simply passed through this region, but analysts say there is evidence China is building rockets that will allow them to conduct more extensive operations there.

The United States will soon have similar capability, provided by the 120m Starship rocket built by Elon Musk's firm SpaceX, which flew round the world on its third test this month before burning up upon re-entry.

Starship will have a lift capacity of 100–150 tonnes, more than a Boeing C-17 cargo plane. Exactly when that system will be operational remains unclear, but Pentagon officials have expressed interest in using it for both deep space missions as well as potentially transporting equipment and troops around the world in times of crisis in perhaps less than an hour.

Starship's size, analysts predict, will also significantly increase the Pentagon's ability to launch large numbers of satellites at once. The Pentagon's Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency has also asked SpaceX and other firms to develop projects that would allow a sustained US civilian and military presence on the moon.

Major wars to come will almost certainly be fought in space. Those by the middle of the century may well start in space and then spread to Earth. Reuters

Peter Apps is a Reuters columnist writing on defence and security issues.

Peter Apps

Reuters global affairs columnist

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist.

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