France leads AsterX, active space defence exercise in which Spain is participating

Outer space surveillance technicians from 15 countries have been trained in a credible, highly complex, multi-domain simulated environment 
El equipo del general del Aire Phillippe Adam, jefe del Mando del Espacio de Francia, en imagen, ha diseñado AsterX 2024 para capacitar en operaciones espaciales militares en coalición - PHOTO/Morgane Valle-Armée Air Espace 
The team of Air General Phillippe Adam, head of France's Space Command, pictured, has designed AsterX 2024 to train in coalition military space operations - PHOTO/Morgane Valle-Armée Air Espace

The French Space Command led by Air General Phillippe Adam has just evaluated the results of AsterX, the largest multinational military space exercise on the Old Continent. 

  1. Avoiding missile fire against satellites
  2. Towards a progressive militarisation of space

The 2024 edition of AsterX, which is held annually, involved military and civilian technicians from the host country and 15 other nations. A total of 140 space surveillance specialists gathered at the Toulouse headquarters of the French space agency (CNES) under the leadership of Colonel Mathieu Bernabé, Head of Operations at the French space commandement, CDE. 

With the largest number of military and civilian satellites in orbit among the countries of NATO's European pillar, nine European nations - Belgium, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States - and six others from the rest of the world, namely Australia, Canada, Korea, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Japan, have come to the call of Sebastien Lecornu, Emmanuel Macron's defence minister. 

La teniente del Aire Paula Torres ha constituido junto con un oficial alemán y tres franceses el equipo encargado de efectuar el análisis técnico del entorno espacial - PHOTO/Morgane Valle-Armée Air Espace
Air Lieutenant Paula Torres, together with a German officer and three French officers, has formed the team in charge of the technical analysis of the space environment - PHOTO/Morgane Valle-Armée Air Espace

The Spanish Air Force - headed for exactly seven years by Air General Javier Salto - has been present at AsterX with an officer from the Space Surveillance Operations Centre (COVE). This unit, created in November 2019, is subordinate to the Space Command which, since February, has been headed by Air Force Major General Isaac Crespo from his headquarters at the Torrejón air base near Madrid. 

Air and Space Headquarters has confirmed that the national representative has been Lieutenant Paula Torres who, together with a German officer and three French officers, have formed the team responsible for carrying out the daily "technical analysis" of the situation in the space environment. Lieutenant Torres is responsible for the remote control operation of the S3TSR space surveillance and tracking radar located at the Morón de la Frontera air base (Seville). 

Una de las situaciones planteadas ha consistido en evitar el intento de una astronave hostil de atrapar con sus brazos robóticos un satélite de la coalición constituida en AsterX - PHOTO/ExLabs
One of the scenarios was to prevent a hostile spacecraft from attempting to trap a coalition satellite in AsterX with its robotic arms - PHOTO/ExLabs

Avoiding missile fire against satellites

For a dozen days, from 4 to 15 March, Lieutenant Torres' team worked on 23 missions in different orbits around the Earth and studied the 14 threats posed to them "in a scenario with around 4,000 space objects", according to the organisers. After carrying out their analyses, they had to present their conclusions to the various multinational AsterX clusters. 

The reports provided by the Franco-German-Spanish team have also been used to monitor the re-entry of objects into the Earth's atmosphere, detect the launching and putting into orbit of satellites, study the consequences of fragmentations and space debris generated by the collision between two satellites, and analyse the manoeuvres of spacecraft that could pose a threat.

For example, they had to deduce the intentions of a satellite approaching an allied communications platform in space. After verifying that the action was deliberate and realising that the spacecraft poses a threat by being equipped with robotic arms to trap or de-orbit their own satellite, the AsterX participants reacted to prevent the aggression. 

Los 140 participantes del país anfitrión y otras 15 naciones se han sumergido durante 12 días en una situación de guerra generalizada en los dominios terrestre, naval, aéreo, ciber y espacial - PHOTO/Morgane Valle-Armée Air Espace
The 140 participants from the host country and 15 other nations were immersed for 12 days in a situation of generalised warfare in the land, naval, air, cyber and space domains - PHOTO/Morgane Valle-Armée Air Espace

Another situation encountered in AsterX was to raise the alarm when a missile was simulated to be fired at a satellite and how to react to avoid the impact. Docking operations between orbiting spacecraft were also monitored and the identification capabilities of each of the 29 ground and space-based surveillance, detection and tracking sensors used during the exercise were verified. 

The 2024 version of AsterX had a dual purpose, according to General Adam, head of the CDE since July 2022. On the one hand, "to promote the interoperability of procedures in the execution of space operations" and also "to strengthen strategic solidarity between the French armed forces and their allies". In short, the aim is to "train in planning and executing coalition military space operations under credible simulated conditions". 

Una emergencia del ejercicio ha consistido en utilizar los sensores para reaccionar y evitar el impacto de un misil disparado contra un satélite - PHOTO/L3Harris
Responsible for operating the S3TSR space surveillance and tracking radar at Morón air base, Lieutenant Torres was the COVE representative at AsterX 2024 - PHOTO/L3Harris

Towards a progressive militarisation of space

Over the course of a dozen days, participants were confronted with a large number of scenarios and incidents related to a hypothetical situation of generalised warfare in the land, naval, air and cyber domains. General Adam claims that some Russian satellites exhibit what he described as "hostile behaviour", moving in an "uncoordinated manner for much of the time they are in orbit".

The global geostrategic situation means that the so-called militarisation of space is on the rise. Technology is progressing at such a pace that satellites are becoming more capable, more manoeuvrable and their operational life in space is being extended. Orbits around the Earth are becoming increasingly crowded with spacecraft of different sizes and competition between states and commercial entities is growing.

Responsable de operar el radar de vigilancia y seguimiento espacial S3TSR de la base aérea de Morón, la teniente Torres ha sido la representante del COVE en AsterX 2024 - PHOTO/Morgane Valle-Armée Air Espace
Responsible for operating the S3TSR space surveillance and tracking radar at Morón air base, Lieutenant Torres was the COVE representative at AsterX 2024 - PHOTO/Morgane Valle-Armée Air Espace

The immediate consequence is that space systems of a military or dual nature have become a substantial part of military operations, both for strategic communications and for ballistic missile observation, detection, navigation, planning and targeting. AsterX is complementary to the US Space Command's Global Sentinel, which last February brought together 250 specialists from 24 nations, including a team from Spain's COVE. 

France's Space Command (CDE) was created in 2019 by President Emmanuel Macron and will reach its initial operational capability in 2025. It was formed on the basis of the existing Joint Space Command, established in 2010 by then President Nicolas Sarkozy, who saw the need to protect France's vast fleet of military satellites - now more than a dozen - and civilian satellites, more than fifty in number. 

El general de División del Aire Isaac Crespo, jefe del Mando del Espacio, segundo de la segunda fila, por la derecha, fue uno de los altos mandos invitados a visitar el desarrollo de AsterX 2024 - PHOTO/Morgane Valle-Armée Air Espace
Air Force Major General Isaac Crespo, head of the Space Command, second from the right in the second row, was one of the senior officers invited to visit the AsterX 2024 development - PHOTO/Morgane Valle-Armée Air Espace

In Spain, the Space Command was established in March 2023. As a preliminary step, on 27 June 2022, the Council of Ministers approved a Royal Decree renaming the Spanish Air Force the Air and Space Army, a name that its French equivalent had already adopted in September 2020. The reason for the change in Spain was the "growing importance of outer space in the aerospace field", especially in the Air Force, which must be able to supervise space, guarantee security and freedom of action in the national interest.