When Science Fiction Becomes Reality: Birth of the French Space Force

On September 11, 2020, the French Air Army became the “Air and Space Army” and unveiled its new logo. There is still the tricolor plane in the shape of a sparrowhawk, but it now flies over what we imagine to be our planet Earth, which is represented by a curved line.

This expansion of the air force’s terrain to outer space was announced by Emmanuel Macron in the summer of 2019. He had declared “The new military space doctrine, proposed by the Minister and approved by me, will ensure our defence, of the space and through space (…) a major space command will be created next September within the Air Force. This will eventually become the Air Force and Space Army” (Speech of July 13, 2019 at the Hotel Brienne).

France is not the only State to have a space force. Let us recall, at the end of December 2019, the creation of the United States Space Force, a military service integrated into the Department of Air Force, whose mission is to protect the interests of the United States and its allies in space. Japan also recently announced its willingness to create a space defense command.

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This official evolution of the Air and Space Forces’ missions preceded by three days the announcement by British scientists of the Royal Astronomical Society, who discovered a gas, phosphine, in the clouds of Venus, which led them to speculate on the presence of life on our neighboring planet. Traces of life that do not seem in any way threatening for our species. No, these national space armies were not created to attack or defend against extraterrestrial beings from our solar system or from more distant galaxies. Again and again, the enemy is the man.

“Ensure our defense, of the space …” The Space Army would make it possible to ensure the defense of France against the action of earthlings in outer space. Whether against States that militarize and use space as a new playground for espionage, or private companies that put satellites into orbit that could become weapons by destination (here we think, for instance, of the SpaceX company whose goal is to put 42 000 Starlink satellites into low orbit to improve the internet connection and allow the vast majority of earthlings to watch high-definition movies, which would create a real traffic jam around our planet and further pollute outer space, since the Earth is already polluted enough).

The term “space army” in itself raises questions, one could be mistaken and believe here that France is appropriating this space and defending its sovereignty. The Minister of the Armies even used the expression “French space sovereignty” in a tweet dated May 26, even though this is totally contrary to international space law, which has established the legal regime for outer space.

For the first time, an air force aviator is qualified to operate a satellite. After a training at CNES he is from now on a “satellite mission engineer”. A 2nd officer is currently in formation. They are the pioneers of a real French space sovereignty”.

We should remind that the State has full sovereignty over the airspace above its territory, the 1944 Chicago Convention on international civil aviation states it in its first article: “The contracting States recognize that every State has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above its territory”. Beyond the atmosphere, it became difficult to establish clear boundaries for each state over an infinite and obscure space. The 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (Outer Space Treaty ratified by France in 1970) clearly states in Article II that “outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means”.

Speaking of “French space sovereignty” is therefore incompatible with the definition of international outer space law as res communis, belonging to no one, beneficial to all. But this principle of non-appropriation is only an illusion, as scientific and technological advances have led to a de facto appropriation by private companies and States.

“… and through space”

The French space “doctrine” has two sides, a defensive strategy with the space surveillance mission and a more “active” strategy, to use the term used by the President Macron. Indeed, the Minister of the Armies announced that France would not hesitate to retaliate in case of danger, “If our satellites are threatened, we will consider to dazzle those of our adversaries” (Speech of July 25, 2019 at Lyon’s air base 942 – Mont Verdun). To “dazzle” them, France plans to equip its satellites with laser weapons.  

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The words of General Michel Friedling, commander of the joint space command, made during a hearing on February 13, 2019 before the Senate, enlighten us on this point: “It would obviously not be a question of embarking on an arms race contrary to the international principles governing space activities and to our vision of the world, but of exercising a right of self-defense, as authorized by the United Nations Charter”. Yes, article 51 of the UN Charter protects “the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations”. The right of self-defense can be invoked in the case of an armed aggression which has already occur, and not in the case of a mere threat, this is what the letter of the Charter allows.

The idea of a space army is contradictory to international law. The UN General Assembly Resolution 1348 (XIII) of December 13, 1958 on the question of the peaceful use of outer space, recognized “the common interest of mankind in outer space and (…) that it is the common aim that outer space should be used for peaceful purposes only”. The phenomenon of the militarization of space is the opposite of this peaceful use of outer space desired by States in 1958, just after the first artificial satellite Sputnik 1 was sent by the Russians in 1957, and before that a man had succeeded in breaking through the atmosphere.

Nevertheless, the States parties only committed themselves in article IV of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty to “not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner”. Thus, arming a satellite with a laser is outside the scope of this article. The Outer Space Treaty does not prohibit the placement of weapons that are neither nuclear weapons nor weapons of mass destruction in orbit around the Earth, which seems contradictory to the principle of the peaceful use of outer space.

It is to be hoped that earthlings will adopt the philosophy of the Jedi, because as Yoda says: “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack”.

Clémence Billard

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