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France joins the race for a militarized space

The militarisation of space is being intensified, as an area of growing strategic importance, given that the main arms systems, beginning with nuclear weapons, depend on spatial systems.

Published: August 17, 2019, 9:33 am

    Today space is not only crowded but increasingly economically and militarily valuable. Space is the only globally shared domain, because land can be fenced in and guarded and shorelines, sea lanes, and airspace can be patrolled.

    Space is filled with vast constellations of satellites that link together communications and computer networks, monitor weather, search for natural resources, and provide GPS data for smartphones and navigation aids and of course, military satellites.

    “The space environment has become increasingly congested, competitive and contested,” Frank Rose, a senior fellow for security and strategy at the Brookings Institution and former assistant secretary of state for arms control, explained to Congress in March 2019.

    “Due to the dual-use nature of many space technologies, even benign space capabilities can be viewed by others as counter-space weapons,” a 2018 report from the US Center for Strategic & International Studies noted.

    “If you’re a nation that has the capability of routinely launching satellites, then you also have the ability to destroy satellites,” Ted Postol, a former Pentagon nuclear security expert explained. Thus Raytheon’s Exoatomospheric Kill Vehicle was designed to destroy intercontinental ballistic missiles in space, but could be repurposed to knock out enemy satellites as well.

    But Postol says anyone “with two neurons to rub together” would support the international effort to make space a sanctuary against weapons.

    The remarkable display of a flying infantryman during the French military parade on July 14 this year, coincided with the creation of a French Joint Military Space Command. After Russia, China and the United States, France is now the fourth military power to invest in a sector which has been free from nuclear weapons.

    Two days before the parade, President Emmanuel Macron was in the port of Cherbourg to participate in the launching of a nuclear attack submarine, the Suffren, the first vessel in the new Baracuda series, built on a ten-year programme at a cost of 9 billion Euros.

    On the eve of the 14 July parade, it was announced that France would create a new National Command for its Military Space Force, with a primary financing of 3,6 billion Euros over 6 years.

    “The new space and military doctrine which was proposed to me by the Minister, and which I approved, will enable us to ensure our defence of space and by space” President Macron said.

    The French submarine, armed with long-range cruise missiles with both conventional and nuclear capacities, is also equipped with a mini-sub for special forces operations. The Suffren boasts a high degree of stealth with its acoustic signature likened to the “sound of the ocean,” or to the noise made by shrimp.

    The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), or the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty, is the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons, with the goal of leading towards their total elimination, also in space. It was passed on 7 July 2017. But 69 nations did not vote for it, among them all of the nuclear weapon states and all NATO members except the Netherlands.

    In order to come into effect, signature and ratification by at least 50 countries is required. As of August 2019, 25 states have ratified the treaty. For those nations that are party to it, the treaty prohibits the development, testing, production, stockpiling, stationing, transfer, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons, as well as assistance and encouragement to the prohibited activities.

    For nuclear armed states joining the treaty, it provides for a time-bound framework for negotiations leading to the verified and irreversible elimination of its nuclear weapons programme.

    Sweden, which had approved it in 2017, has announced that it will not sign the Treaty either – a decision allegedly influenced by NATO.

    Thus, while nuclear disarmament remains on paper, the possibility of proliferation has escalated.

    With its new Space Command, France is following the lead of the United States. In February, President Trump signed a directive inaugurating the US Space Force, a force specifically designed for military operations in space, directed against its two main competitors Russia and China.

    In fact, when US Senate Armed Services Committee handed over the command of the new Force to the Aeronautics sector, it defined space as a “field for the conduct of warfare”.

    The US has refused to join negotiations to discuss the first draft of the TPNW, presented by China and Russia, which would forbid the placing of weapons in space, and stipulates a series of legal limits for using space for military purposes.

    Among the 700 international guests at the French launching ceremony was the Australian Minister for Defence, Linda Reynolds, who had signed a contract to buy 12 French attack submarines. In Australia too, there are on-going discussions concerning the possibility for the country to leave the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and build its own nuclear arsenal.

    Australia, a partner of NATO, is opposed to the Treaty, which was approved in July 2017 by the UN General Assembly.

    So far, it has been signed by 70 countries, but ratified only by a minority (including Austria, Cuba, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and Venezuela), less than half of the 50 signatures necessary for its implementation.

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