PARIS — Thousands of soldiers paraded down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, on foot, on horseback, in tanks and even on a flying hoverboard. But the real action, increasingly, was somewhere far away: outer space.
President Emmanuel Macron of France set the stage for Sunday’s annual Bastille Day military parade by announcing the creation of a space command within France’s air force.
Stressing that France and Europe’s independence was at stake, the president said that the command would “ensure our defense of space within space.”
The move by France, the Continent’s leader in space, was the latest sign that the era of fighting in space — disabling or even shooting down satellites on which warfare on earth is increasingly dependent — was getting closer.
“Space is increasingly seen as a strategic asset, not only by the major space powers, but also by secondary powers like France,” said Jean-Jacques Tortora, director of the European Space Policy Institute in Vienna. “Space might potentially be the theater of military operations, and this justifies the setting up of dedicated space commands to manage these sorts of operations.”
But for now, Europe is playing catch up. Pooling resources has helped Europe keep its leadership in the civilian use of space, experts say. But when it comes to militarizing space, Europe remains divided, with France facing resistance from Germany and other nations.
The result is that Europe’s military capacity in space ranks far behind the United States, China and Russia. The lack of a unified vision could constrain France’s ambitions for its space command.
In space-related activities in Europe, “France is the biggest and most important country, but going it alone would be close to impossible,” said Thomas Hoerber, a professor at the Essca School of Management and co-editor of the book, “European Space Policy.”
Mr. Macron hinted as much in his speech announcing the creation of the space command. While he spoke of reinforcing France’s “strategic autonomy,” he added that it must take place in a “European framework.”
But even there, the challenges were apparent.
Just as Mr. Macron was set to announce the creation of the space command, Galileo, Europe’s satellite navigation system and its biggest joint project in space, was experiencing a systemwide “outage.”
All of its 22 orbiting satellites had gone offline. “The signals are not to be used,” Galileo’s operators said.
Instead, Galileo’s users, including owners of the latest smartphones, were switched to signals from America’s Global Positioning System or other competitors.
Galileo represented a united Europe’s lofty ambitions to carve out, in space, a place for itself among the world’s traditional and rising powers. But the systemwide shutdown was a reminder of how those ambitions have often been undermined by the European Union’s competing national interests and comparable lack of resources.
Last year, the European Commission said it would merge its space-related activities in a single body called the E.U. Space Program.
Emphasizing the need for European autonomy, the commission announced a budget of 16 billion euros from 2021 to 2027, about $18 billion, a 44 percent increase over the previous six-year period.
Most of the money would go to programs with mainly civilian uses, like Galileo and Copernicus, a satellite observation system that allows for the precise monitoring of earth from space.
More satellites would be added to Copernicus’s constellation, increasing its capacity to monitor the environment and climate change, as well as manage the security at borders and at sea.
The plan also calls for increasing military capacity by beefing up the Governmental Satellite Communications system, which provides “access to secure satellite communications for national authorities.”
The growing threats in space, some experts said, could soften the view of Germany and other European nations toward military use.
“So France starts first,” Mr. Tortora said, “and will call the more motivated to join.”
Last year, President Trump called for the establishment of a space force as a sixth branch of the American armed forces. Russia created its own space command in 2011. And China identified space as a critical part of its military strategy in a 2015 white paper on defense.
For France — a nation with longstanding military and civilian ambitions in space and with the biggest budget devoted to space activities in Europe — joining the club was a natural step, said Jean-Yves Le Gall, president of the Centre National d’Études Spatiales, the French space agency.
“We already had a strong military program in space,” Mr. Le Gall said. “So it was logical to have a more structured organization.”
France’s defense minister, Florence Parly, laid the groundwork for the establishment of the space command by disclosing one incident in a speech last year.
A Russian satellite, Luch-Olymp, had come “a little too close” to an orbiting French-Italian satellite, named Athena-Fidus, that the two allies had used since 2014 to exchange secure military information, Ms. Parly said.
“Trying to listen to your neighbors is not only unfriendly, it’s an act of espionage,” she said.
A parliamentary report, prepared by two lawmakers allied with Mr. Macron, warned that changes to France’s space policies were necessary so that “outer space does not become the Achilles’ heel of our armed forces or our society.”
Under the government’s plan, the space command will be staffed initially with 200 military personnel and headquartered in Toulouse, the site of the French space agency and Airbus’s headquarters.
Over the next six years, France plans to devote €3.6 billion to defense in space, out of a €295 billion military budget, or about $4 billion out of $330 billion. The money would go toward replacing all of its satellites and modernizing a radar surveillance system in space.
France is expected to reveal more details soon about its space command, which is scheduled to become operational in September.
The command could start a debate in Europe about the weaponization of space, even as European views have been changing, including toward its biggest joint project, Galileo.
Two decades ago, some European nations, like France, emphasized Galileo’s strategic importance in lessening dependence on the American GPS system, while others stressed its economic potential. Still others, like Britain, initially opposed it because of its implicit challenge to American interests.
The project suffered from major budget overruns and delays. But after the satellite navigation system became operational in a pilot phase in 2016, its backers could stress the positive. Europe now had its own autonomous system — one even more accurate than the American GPS.
That is, when it works.
A “technical incident” related to Galileo’s “ground infrastructure” was blamed for the problems, which lasted about a week.
“This is the biggest problem Galileo has ever had — the first time there’s been a systemwide shutdown,” said Arnaud Landragin, a satellite navigation expert at the Time-Space Reference Systems of the Paris Observatory, one of the research centers that helps Galileo adjust its atomic clocks.
It was a setback for Europe, which has urged its members to use Galileo over its rivals.
“If you’re asking this to be the go-to service,” Mr. Landragin said, “you have to make sure it works 24 hours, seven days a week.”
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