Space Planes: The Missing Piece of European Space Policy (Part 1)
(Source: special to; posted Feb. 25, 2022)

By Capitaine Fracasse
Even though the US Air Force’s X-37B space plane program is highly confidential, it is clear that it is capable of carrying out a wide range of civilian and military missions. (USAF photo)
PARIS --- After years of dormancy, Europe has decided to adopt an ambitious space policy. This is the meaning of President Macron's speech in Toulouse on February 16, which aims to give the European Union sovereignty in the field of space, defined as "the sovereignty of sovereignties". So, this is not nothing. And it will be necessary to put the means to it.

Insidiously, progressively and irrevocably, we have entrusted our prosperity and our economic stability to space and to satellites. Space control" is no longer an option, but an obligation.

This observation was perfectly summarized by the French President: "Without control of space, there is no technological sovereignty. Access to the Internet, satellite navigation, all of this depends to a large extent on space. Without control of space, there can be no industrial and economic sovereignty. Beyond the tens of thousands of jobs, 32,000 direct jobs in France alone, which are affected by the sector, space drives an entire ecosystem of research, innovation and industry. Without control of space, there can be no scientific progress or detailed knowledge of major environmental and climate issues.”

A strategy divided into four pillars: competitiveness and scientific and industrial sovereignty; power and military share; regulatory framework; and space adventure.

The second pillar is military

In 50 years of investments, launches and development of space capabilities in the field of satellites (more than 2000 satellites are currently operational), our "strategic and military sovereignty" has become dependent on the space domain: "The control of communication networks, data exchanges, the observation of the movements of the various armies on the planet, space has also become one of the new places of contemporary conflict. Without mastery of space, there is no complete power capable of both fully controlling its destiny and conquering new frontiers. We will not win a war without space. Space will probably even be the first area of battle in order to make the enemy blind and deaf.

The second major pillar of the European space strategy will therefore be that of military power, and France wishes to extend it to space, which has become "a place for the deployment of military strategy, power and new conflicts.”

In this field, France has played the role of precursor in Europe with the creation of a Space Command (CDE) in September 2019 located in Toulouse near the CNES (Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales). Its mission: to federate and coordinate all resources dedicated to the defense space domain. The Air Force will be responsible for this new command, which will act on behalf of all the armed forces, and will become the Air and Space Force. The first of its kind in Europe.

At the same time as the creation of the CDE, France adopted a "defence space strategy", the purpose of which is specified by the Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, in the preamble to the text: "to identify and characterize unfriendly or hostile acts in the environment and in our satellites, to pursue the development of our means of support for operations, to protect our space assets and to discourage our adversaries from harming them, this is the horizon towards which we must concentrate our efforts."

This is also the moment President Trump will choose to force the Pentagon to establish a U.S. Space Force independent of the Air Force (USAF). Russia, meanwhile, has already unified its "aerospace forces" since 2015. It was also in 2015 that China chose a new command, the Strategic Support Force of the People's Liberation Army, which has become a full-fledged component of the Chinese army, responsible for missions in the space, cyber, information and electronic warfare fields. After much debate, the West chose to create specialized space commands. However, through NATO and under American influence, they have developed the concept of multidomain operations, which aims to synergize land, air, sea, space and cyber capabilities to win armed conflicts. Space is thus a new environment for offensive and defensive military operations.

With regard to "offensive" missions, the French space strategy specifies that if an active defence can be put in place, it should only be for self-defence and not for an offensive strategy. This position is reminiscent of the one concerning the arming of Reaper drones, but reality has quickly overtaken ethical considerations.

For our competitors do not bother with such moral considerations. Space is a place of confrontation like any other, which is not limited to the deployment of satellites of all types and sizes. They are all developing offensive capabilities. Florence Parly herself mentioned the possibility of deploying high-powered lasers in space to "dazzle" non-cooperative satellites, or patrolling nano-satellites to inform us about the space situation. President Macron confirmed this in his February 16 speech: "Our ambition in this area is, without aggression but without naivety, to provide ourselves with a vision of the protection and resilience of our space infrastructures and how to respond with all our allies to attacks on our capabilities.” An approach that is not only defensive.

The X-37B space plane: the pioneer, the reference and the model

For the United States, but also for China and Russia, ensuring control of space and being able, for example, to neutralize opposing satellites, requires the implementation of robotized and reusable space vehicles. For Europe, a military capability of this nature remains absent from the strategy proposed by the French President.

The United States is leading the way in this field with Boeing's X-37 program. The X-37B is partly based on the experience of the Space Shuttle program, whose five "orbiters" made 135 flights between 1981 and 2011, before the program was stopped in 2011. This program was emblematic of the United States' advance in the 1980s. But a program that did not live up to its promises in terms of operational flexibility and lower launch costs, and which suffered two dramatic accidents in 1986 and 2003.

Conceptualized by the USAF in the 1990s, then "adopted" by NASA in 1998, the X-37B was first considered as a reusable robotic space shuttle demonstrator within the framework of the FutureX program, which aimed to develop reusable space technologies. For political reasons, it was then transferred to DARPA in 2004, then to the USAF in 2006. It is now continued under the responsibility of the newly created USSF, and in particular its "Delta 9" branch. "Delta 9” is the first officially recognized state space combat unit (orbital warfare). It is the most offensive component of this Space Force.

The X-37B takes the general shape of the Shuttle. It has a length of 8.90 m for a maximum takeoff weight of 5.5 tons. It has a 2.5 m3 payload bay. Moreover, it is propelled by a rocket engine which allows it to change altitude and inclination (0.5 to 1°) of orbit by atmospheric rebound. The two copies of the USFF built by Boeing are launched by the Atlas V (Lockheed Martin) or Falcon 9 (SpaceX) rockets.

The first orbital mission of the X-37B began on April 22, 2010 and lasted 225 days. They have already completed five missions to low Earth orbit for a cumulative duration of 2,886 days. The sixth mission (OTV-6) is in progress. It was launched on May 17, 2020 and could break the record of 780 days in space set by the OTV-5 mission in October 2019.

This program is highly classified especially with respect to on-board payloads and operations performed on orbit. The USFF does not communicate about its missions. But there is little doubt that, thanks to its persistence, maneuverability and payload capacity, the X-37B is capable of a significant number of missions, from research and experimentation of new technologies, to the execution of operational tasks: military reconnaissance and listening sensors, deployment of small reconnaissance satellites, repair and maintenance operations, inspection of adversary satellites, anti-satellite actions, etc. Although they still appear under the nomenclature of experimental craft, the X-37B left the status of "demonstrator" in 2015 from the fourth mission, for that of a true operational capability.

Russia and China in the competition

The way of the reusable space planes is also borrowed by China and Russia but in an even more discreet mode according to the military tradition of these two countries. Russia is the heir of the USSR whose Buran space shuttle program never succeeded for economic reasons (collapse of the Soviet Union). However, the USSR had tested successfully in flight several types of space planes. From then on, one understands better its mastery of hypersonic technologies for the armament of which the Avangard quasi-orbital glider is the most emblematic. The technology of this glider is common to space planes. Russia announced in 2020 that it would be able to put the equivalent of the X-37B in flight by 2025-2030.

For its part, China has also been very involved in the development of hypersonic for 20 years to develop weapons (airborne missiles, reconnaissance drone, etc.). Hypersonic is one of the seven priorities of the Chinese government. This unique and unprecedented effort has already resulted in operational objects (WZ-8, DF-17...) and several tests in 2021 of the Chinese equivalent of Avangard. On the space side, a suborbital aircraft with reactive use also flew for the first time last year.

Then, in 2020, China placed its first Shenlong space plane into orbit for two days. The Chinese media, which was not picked up by the Western press, described a vehicle very close in form, function and capability to the American X-37B. In this respect, it is fair to say that China is ahead of Russia.

Taking note of the inevitable militarization of space, of which they are the main actors, the United States, Russia and China have launched themselves into the battle of reusable space planes for military purposes. This is a field in which Europe remains hopelessly absent and for which the European space strategy announced by President Macron does not bring anything new.

The studies that will be carried out concerning "manned space flight" for exploration purposes (fourth pillar) do not require "aircraft" but capsules. A "capsule" is a "spacecraft". It is not a reusable manned or droned "spaceplane", which must be able to deviate from its trajectory and return by its own means to its departure base. Simply put, a spaceplane must have wings to maneuver (with the exception of "lifting body" technology).

[end of Part 1]

To be continued: part 2: Where are Europe and France in the reusable spaceplane projects?


prev next