Germany To Invest in French Recon Satellite for Access to Full Constellation

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Updated at 1:55 p.m. EST

PARIS — France’s long search for a European partner and co-investor in its next-generation optical reconnaissance satellite system has paid off with the agreement by Germany to help finance a third satellite in return for access to the full three-satellite system, the head of the French arms-procurement agency, DGA, said Feb. 9.

In a press briefing here, Laurent Collet-Billon said the various protocols needed for the agreement to take force are all but completed, and that Germany would be paying a sizable percentage of the cost of a third Optical Space Component, or CSO, satellite, to be built in France to French specifications.

Collet-Billion also reiterated the French military’s position that the ballistic-missile work now done by Airbus Defence and Space would not be transferred into the new Airbus Safran Launchers space launch joint venture anytime soon, for security reasons.

DGA officials nonetheless cautioned that the agreement had not yet been signed, and they recalled the difficult past history of attempts to force a pan-European, or even bilateral, space-based reconnaissance network.

France’s long search for a European partner and co-investor in its next-generation optical reconnaissance satellite system has paid off with the agreement by Germany to help finance a third satellite in return for access to the full three-satellite system, the head of the French arms-procurement agency, DGA, said Feb. 9.

Two CSO satellites are already under construction by Airbus Defence and Space, and Thales Alenia Space and are scheduled for launch in 2017 and 2018. Signed in late 2010 and valued at 795 million euros, or about $1 billion, the contract included an option for a third satellite that France hoped would be financed by a European partner.

Multiple negotiating rounds and four years later, the agreement that Collet-Billon described is part of a broader agreement in which France will invest in a ground segment to use Germany’s second-generation SARah radar reconnaissance system, and Germany would purchase French hardware for taking down imagery from the three CSO optical satellites.

“We are now circulating the project’s memorandum of protocol that will put this into place,” Collet-Billon said. “It will allow us to start work on a third satellite, which will correspond to the first two satellites and will be built to French specifications.”

DGA officials nonetheless cautioned that the agreement had not yet been signed, and they recalled the difficult past history of attempts to force a pan-European, or even bilateral, space-based reconnaissance network.

Collet-Billon was adamant, however, saying: “There is no doubt about the fact that this is going to be done.”

Laurent Collet-Billon
“We are now circulating the project’s memorandum of protocol that will put this into place,” the head of France’s arms-procurement agency, Collet-Billon, said. Credit: British Embassy, Paris

Today, Germany and Italy operate separate radar reconnaissance constellations, while France maintains an optical constellation with the Helios and the smaller Pleiades satellites. Spain is building one optical and one radar satellite on its own. Because of an unusual opportunity embedded into a military training-aircraft offset deal, Italy has purchased a high-resolution optical satellite from Israel.

One official said Germany would be paying slightly less than one-half the costs of a third CSO satellite — basically a duplicate of the two already under construction — in return for access to 20 percent of the data from the entire network beginning with the first CSO launch in 2017.

The ground-sampling distance of the CSO satellites is classified, but industry officials have said the system’s optical instrument will capture images with a resolution substantially sharper than 50 centimeters. The satellites also will have much greater agility — the ability to swivel from side to side for image gathering flexibility — than the current Helios and Pleiades satellites.

Pleiades is capable of collecting images with 70-centimeter-resolution when two pictures are laid one on top of one another; Helios can get resolutions of about 50 centimeters. With French government approval, Airbus and Thales have sold Pleiades-class systems to the governments of the United Arab Emirates and Morocco, with each purchasing two spacecraft.

The agreement with Germany on CSO follows France’s decision to go it alone on a next-generation military satellite communications system after efforts to find a suitable partner came up empty.

Collet-Billon said he was at a loss to explain why France was unable to reduce the load on French taxpayers by combining that work several European nations, or farming out the contract to industry as part of a public-private partnership in which industry would own the system and sell capacity to the government.

“Maybe it’s simply not in our genes,” Collet-Billon said. “Otherwise I really can’t explain it. For now what we want is a good offer from [Airbus and Thales] on our next-generation system, Syracuse 4, an offer that blends the qualities of the two companies. We aren’t there yet and we have asked them to work a little harder.”

Meanwhile, Collet-Billon said the new Airbus Safran Launchers joint venture, to become prime contractor for future European Ariane rockets, will not include Airbus’ current work on French ballistic missiles. Currently the design work Ariane rockets and French ballistic missiles is performed in the same Airbus offices.

“Airbus’ missile activities are covered by specific regulations related to national security,” Collet-Billon said. “The day we determine that the industrial and security and information-security systems [of the joint-venture company] offer the same full control of the ballistic missile work as we have now — all the while allowing for the synergies in propellant production and so forth — then we’ll discuss combining this work into a new industrial team. For the moment that is not the case.”