French Trade Group Comes to the Defense of Arianespace Status Quo

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PARIS — The French aerospace industries association, GIFAS, on April 23 disputed a French government audit that cited inefficiencies in the way Europe’s Ariane rockets are built, saying Europe’s French-led rocket industry is possibly the most cost-effective in the world despite its organizational disadvantages.

At a briefing on the 2012 financial performance of France’s aerospace sector, GIFAS President Jean-Paul Herteman, who is also chief executive of aeronautical and rocket-engine builder Safran, also criticized the French Accounting Court’s assessment of the Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket.

In its assessment, the court said Ariane 5 is little used by European governments, who financed its development, and has become a vehicle whose main beneficiaries are commercial satellite operators around the world.

That view has been echoed by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the French space agency, CNES, to justify development of an Ariane 5 successor, called Ariane 6, which would be smaller than Ariane 5 and focus on launching one satellite at a time. Ariane 5 typically carries two telecommunications satellites on each mission.

Herteman said Ariane 5, which has logged 54 consecutive successes since 2002, is developed and operated in a cost-effective way despite the fact that its manufacturing base is spread throughout Europe as part of ESA’s geographic return policy. The policy guarantees each nation contributing to a program that 90 percent of its investment will return in the form of contracts to its domestic industry.

The Accounting Court suggested that savings might be made if Ariane were removed from ESA and developed by just a few nations, with France as the hub.

French industry has been conflicted about Ariane 6, which was supported by the French government, because of its likely effect on France’s industrial base. Some experts have speculated that the space launch sector in France, which now employs 3,000 people, according to GIFAS, would be cut in half once Ariane 6 replaces Ariane 5.

Herteman said ESA’s decision to embark on development of both Ariane 6 and an upgraded Ariane 5, called Ariane 5 ME, is the best way to keep Europe competitive in the commercial launch sector while allowing a gradual shift in employment as Ariane 6 arrives.

ESA governments are expected to make a decision on Ariane 5 ME and Ariane 6 in late 2014. Whether these governments, led by France and Germany, will find the resources to develop both rockets is uncertain.

Germany has said, in effect: We like Ariane 5 ME and we will see later about Ariane 6. The French government has said the opposite: Let us proceed on Ariane 6 and decide later whether Ariane 5 ME is necessary.

Herteman said that his main concern is that no French rocket expertise is left to decay because of a lack of a budget or a program. It takes years to develop the expertise, and once lost it is difficult to replace. Whatever the size of the work force needed for Ariane 6, the rocket retains the core competencies — solid propulsion, liquid propulsion, avionics — that need to be nourished in France.

The association said it supported an initiative of French Research Minister Genevieve Fioraso, who has responsibility for space in France, to create a government-industry consultation group, called Cospace, to force the public and private sectors to discuss long-term space strategy.

Cospace will be modeled on Corac, which brings industry and government together to discuss aeronautical issues and set strategy.

GIFAS reported that France’s space sector revenue in 2012 was stable at 5 billion euros ($6.5 billion). The French government has estimated that the total space sector in France employs 7,000 people, not counting the indirect employment it generates.