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France's high-resolution military surveillance system

Situations like the Iran-Iraq wars and the Afghan conflict highlighted the need for France to strengthen its military surveillance capability for prevention, deterrence and peacekeeping purposes. A space-based system affords it the independent ability to conduct surveillance wherever it likes, without running the risk of violating nations’ airspace.

The Helios I system has become a vital component of France’s military intelligence and operations. The Helios IA and IB satellites complement ground-based systems, providing permanent global coverage. Helios imagery is at the heart of land operations and is also used by air bases and the French Navy.

The Helios II system, the first satellite of which was launched in December 2004, has consolidated and enhanced existing capabilities with significantly higher resolution, more imaging capacity and faster access to imagery. The new system will also support targeting, guidance, mission planning and battle damage assessment.

The Helios IIB satellite increases the operational capability of the system. Helios IIA and Helios IIB satellites are identical.

The Helios programme has leveraged synergies with the SPOT series of satellites. Thanks to the skills and experience it has acquired from civil space programmes, CNES is a prime partner of the French defence apparatus and its DGA procurement agency, which is the programme sponsor. In this capacity, CNES is the delegated contracting authority for the space component and for the overall architecture of the Helios system.

The Helios programme
Initiator DGA (French defence procurement agency)
Status In operation
Participants Helios I - France (DGA, CNES), Italy, Spain
Helios II - France (DGA, CNES), then successive opening to cooperation with Belgium, Spain, Italy, Gernamy and Greece shortly
Objective Give France a high-resolution military surveillance system
Launch date Helios IA: 7 July 1995 (Ariane 4)
Helios IB: 3 December 1999 (Ariane 4)
Helios IIA: 18 December 2004 (Ariane 5G+)
Helios IIB: 18 December 2009 (Ariane 5 GS)

Last updated: January 2010

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