France is investing in its space-based SIGINT capabilities via the CERES initiative. The constellation for three spacecraft is expected to be declared operational in 2021.

French Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) capabilities will take an important step forward with the expected launch of the first CERES (Capacité de REnseignement Electromagnétique Spatial/Space Electromagnetic Intelligence Capability) satellite in 2021.

The programme will build upon work already achieved by France’s Direction Générale de l’Armement (General Armaments Directorate) defence procurement agency to enhance the country’s space-based SIGINT gathering capabilities. These efforts included the launch of the Essaim (Swarm) constellation of four microsatellites in December 2004.

Each spacecraft weighs 120 kilograms (264 pounds) and are positioned in a Low Earth Orbit (LEO). LEOs typically see the satellites orbiting at altitudes of 1,079 nautical miles (2000 kilometres) or less. The Essaim satellites had a six-year life span and were decommissioned in October 2010. This constellation was superseded by the ELISA (Electronic Intelligence by Satellite) constellation of four microsatellites launched in December 2011, also positioned in a LEO.

Although not publicly revealed by the DGA it is reasonable to assume that the CERES constellation will be capable of detecting and geo-locating communications emitters across a three megahertz to three gigahertz waveband. This will enable the detection of high frequency and very/ultra high frequency communications traffic. Meanwhile, the Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) capabilities of CERES may cover wavebands of 0.5 gigahertz/GHz to 40GHz.

The CERES satellites are expected to be capable of detecting, locating, recording and analysing communications and radar emissions. In the ELINT domain this will include measuring the transmission’s angle of arrival; pulse width (possibly 50 nanoseconds to 500 microseconds) and pulse repetition frequency (possibly between 50 hertz to 500 kilohertz); the transmission’s frequency and the radar’s scan rate.

In the COMINT domain, the CERES spacecraft will be able to locate communications emitters and classify their signals. This will include narrow and wideband signals using complex waveforms, encryption and a wide range of modulation protocols. Some signals analysis maybe performed onboard the spacecraft, while additional analysis maybe performed on Earth.

Although unconfirmed, commands to and from the spacecraft may be routed through the CNES’ (Centre National d’Ėtudes Spatiales/National Space Studies Centre) teleport at the Toulouse Space Centre in the eponymous city in southwestern France. Missions are expected to be tasked by the DGA’s Centre d’Electronique de l’Armement (Electronic Armaments Centre) based in Bruz, northwest France. SIGINT gathered by the satellites is expected to be shared across the French armed forces, and the country’s domestic and external civilian and military intelligence agencies.

DGA official documents state that the constellation should be fully operational by 2021. While the DGA is leading the CERES acquisition, the CNES will provide the ground control segment and supervise the satellites’ launch. The CERES programme forms part of a wholesale modernisation of French COMINT/ELINT-gathering capabilities. This is also witnessing the acquisition of three Dassault Falcon-7X Epicure SIGINT-gathering aircraft. These are expected to enter service from 2023. They will replace the pair of TransportAllianz C-160 Gabriel SIGINT aircraft flown by the Armée de l’Air (French Air Force). Like the latter, the Epicures will have a SIGINT mission system developed by Thales.

by Dr. Thomas Withington