PARIS — A mysterious Russian satellite “with big ears” cozied up to a French communications satellite last year in an apparent effort to eavesdrop on secure military communications, France’s defense minister alleged Friday.
In what she said amounted to a “Star Wars” above the Earth, Florence Parly named the Russian satellite as Luch-Olymp. She said it approached the Athena-Fidus, a French-Italian satellite launched in 2014 and used for secure military communications and the planning of operations.
“Trying to listen to one’s neighbor is not only unfriendly. It’s called an act of espionage,” Parly said in a speech in the southern city of Toulouse.
“It got close. A bit too close. So close that one really could believe that it was trying to capture our communications.”
She added that “this little Stars Wars didn’t happen a long time ago in a galaxy far away. It happened a year ago, 36,000 kilometers above our heads.”
She said the Russian satellite has “big ears” and is “well-known but a bit indiscreet.”
Without giving details, she said France had taken “the necessary measures” and is watching the satellite attentively.
The Luch system has been a focus of space observers for several years. In the past, the family of Russian satellites has been tracked moving into position near several U.S. commercial systems. Experts described those maneuvers as unsafe and out of line with established norms, with some questioning whether the system could be used to spy on transmissions – or to strike at vital U.S. equipment in case of conflict.
The public nature of Parly’s comments are in contrast to the traditional silence from Western governments about operations and potential conflicts in space. But they come a month after a top U.S. diplomat raised eyebrows when discussing a Russian system that was “inconsistent” with its stated mission and said an October 2017 incident was a “very troubling development."
While she did not mention the satellite by name, observers speculated the satellite may be one of a series of Russian satellites launched June 23, 2017. In August 23, 2017, the Russian Ministry of Defense issued a press release that said “Today, a small-sized spacecraft has separated from the space platform in order to inspect condition of the Russian satellite.”
Speaking Friday at a Defense Writer’s Group event in Washington, another diplomat, Andrea Thompson, Undersecretary of State for arms control and international security, echoed the French concerns.
“Yeah, we’re concerned, not only with Russia but with other countries on the use of” such systems, Thompson said.
“We did a lot of work to get that tear-line, did a lot of work to get that information to a level we could share that publicly,” she added. “So we’ll continue to work not only with our own defense network and intel capacity capabilities, but with partners.
Earlier this year, the Secure World Foundation released a report that said the Luch series of satellites could have a mission to “intercept broadcasts aimed at other GEO satellites, and possibly also to inspect other GEO satellites.”
Parly was speaking at the Toulouse-based France space agency that developed the Athena-Fidus satellite jointly with the Italian space agency ASI.
She said France must be able to counter new space threats, including spying and potential “hostile attitudes” from other world powers. She will present France’s new space defense strategy by the end of the year but insisted that the country will continue to coordinate with European allies.
“France is and will be a space power”, she said.
Parly said she sees U.S. plans for a Space Force as an “extremely powerful signal: the signal of confrontations to come, the signal of the weight of the space sector, the signal of tomorrow’s challenges.”
Earlier this year, U.S. President Donald Trump laid out his ambition to create a new military service he says is needed to ensure American dominance in space.
Mike Gruss of C4ISRNET contributed to this report.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.