France prepares for space wars in ‘AsterX’ European exercise

Paris: In silent orbit around Earth, a potentially hostile satellite approaches an allied communication node, intentions unknown.

French Space Command has determined the move is deliberate, and intelligence shows the enemy spacecraft is equipped with a robotic arm that would allow it to de-orbit the friendly asset.

The French-led blue team moves a “patroller” satellite into a protective position – a capability France is working on, but now lacks – to block any hostile action by the U.S.-led red team.

While fictional, the scenario played out on Thursday during Europe’s largest space wargames is credible and based on real capabilities, said Colonel Mathieu Bernabé, who is leading the exercise. During the event called AsterX 2024, some 190 participants from France and 15 partner countries are training for everything from jammed space communications to hostile satellites maneuvering to take out friendly orbiters.

“This type of exercise is absolutely essential for our operators, but also our processes, training for what we call operational readiness, so we’re ready to fight a real war,” General Philippe Adam, the commander of France’s space command, said during a presentation of the exercise in Toulouse in south-west France. “It’s as realistic as an exercise scenario can be, obviously – inspired by a lot of things you’ve probably recognized.”
Adam said “unfriendly behavior” by Russian satellites, with uncoordinated and unannounced approaches, happens “all the time,” in all orbits.

Space is becoming more dangerous, and militarization is on the rise, Adam said. Earth orbits have become busier, with increased competition between commercial players and states, while satellites are becoming a lot more capable and manoeuvrable.

Space-based systems have become an integral part of military operations, from communication to ballistic-missile detection, navigation, planning and targetting. Meanwhile, the value of the space economy rose 8% to $546 billion in 2022, according to the non-profit Space Foundation.

French President Emmanuel Macron created a military space command in 2019, with the goal of boosting the country’s awareness of the security situation in space, and to better protect its satellites. France had 91 satellites in orbit in February 2023, the most of any European Union country, according to data published by Statista.

AsterX is “absolutely essential” for ramping up French Space Command, which doesn’t have operational status yet, though it’s performing operations, Adam said. The command is expected to pass an initial stage of operational qualification when it moves into new headquarters in Toulouse next year, and targets full operational capability by 2030.

France is organizing the AsterX wargames for the fourth year, pitting the French-led blue team against the fictional country of Mercure, an adversary trying to destabilize the nation of Arnland. What’s new this year is that the red team, with “significant” space resources, is played by U.S. Space Force personnel, the first time a foreign nation plays the role of adversary.

The exercise simulates more than 4,000 objects in orbit, spinning around in simulated space already days before the exercise, and with the blue and red teams not fully aware of the spatial capacities of their adversary. The knowledge gaps create an intellectual challenge, and the red team being played by the U.S. results in a non-deterministic scenario, Bernabé said.

“AsterX is a laboratory in which you’re confronted with situations, where you experiment with solutions, and get feedback,” Bernabé said. “The challenge is to train how to manage a space situation, but backed up by an inter-army and multi-domain environment, which also means cyber or informational, so this scenario provides for conditions that enable us to play the full spectrum.”
Americans playing the red team provides an additional element of surprise to the exercise, according to Bernabé.

The exercise runs through to March 15 and will include 14 different types of threats and 23 events, within the scenario of a gradually worsening crisis, headed towards high-intensity warfare. Adam said a crisis situation is a useful exercise, as there’s “a lot of ambiguity” to be resolved, while a high-intensity scenario is in some ways simpler because “anything goes.”
A worst-case scenario for orbital conflict would be generalized war with a completely uninhibited enemy attacking satellites “quite indiscriminately,” according to Adam.”Then we’re going to be losing satellites all over the place, we’re going to lose resources, we’re going to create debris, and then it’s a bit of a snowball effect,” Adam said. Failure to quickly stop such an adversary would create “a problem that will last for decades. Once you’ve created debris everywhere, some orbits become completely inoperable.””So yes, a generalized conflict in space would be very, very bad news.”
Through the exercise, France also seek to develop a common culture of space operations with its allies and partners, under realistic threat conditions. In addition to the U.S., countries participating in AsterX include the U.K., Japan and South Korea, as well as a number of EU partners.

“We understand each other better after this exercise, in the nature of the responses we can provide, since we’ve experimented with things together,” Bernabé said.

Interoperability challenges between countries’ space forces are “extremely numerous,” including distinct vocabulary for the same things and different procedures and policies, according to Adam.French Space Command targets about 500 personnel in 2025, from around 350 now, according to Adam. He said partners such as Japan, Germany and Italy are creating commands similar in size, between 300 and 600 personnel, adding that human resources are “a tremendous problem” for everyone.

Those goals compare to around 13,900 staff for the U.S. Space Force at the end of December. France doesn’t have the ambition of creating anything similar, which would require “being rich like an American,” the general said.

In addition to the new Toulouse headquarters, the main priority for France is to get patroller satellites into orbit, according to Adam. He said the country also needs to strengthen the terrestrial part of its space capabilities, and needs more space-surveillance sensors.

He said the country’s Yoda agile satellite demonstrator, which has been held up by a lack of launch slots, may become operational “in the next few months,” with operational space-patrol capacity following within one to two years.

“These are not very big satellites, they’re not very complicated satellites,” Adam said. “What’s most complicated is knowing how to use them.” And that’s what France is preparing for with AsterX.