France Determined To Orbit Elint Satellite by 2020

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PARIS — The French Defence Ministry on April 29 said it is determined to place an electronics-intelligence (elint) satellite into orbit by 2020 to operate alongside a new-generation optical reconnaissance satellite and that it hopes to persuade one or more European governments to share in the investment.

The French White Paper on Defense and National Security, which will be used to guide annual defense equipment investment, says space-based communications and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance area is topmost priority alongside medium-altitude, long-endurance drones and tactical drones, in-flight aircraft refueling and defense against cyberspace attacks.

Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, in an April 29 speech to military personnel to announce the publication of the long-promised white paper, said space-based intelligence is “fundamental for our sovereignty” and will be a priority for the government.

Nine months in the making and blessed by French President Francois Hollande, the white paper nonetheless does not specifically commit France to fielding what it has called the Ceres electronics-intelligence satellite system, which has been in the planning stages for more than five years.

The previous government’s defense white paper, published in 2008, also placed Ceres high on the priority list. Military officials then said that France would go it alone if it could not find partners interested in it.

But in a context of continued government spending and debt crises that Le Drian said would force France to drop its defense investment to 1.66 percent of gross domestic product starting in 2014, compared with 1.9 percent today, Ceres has never moved off the drawing boards.

Europe’s two largest satellite prime contractors, Astrium Satellites and Thales Alenia Space, have proposed a common effort that would employ Thales’ new EliteBus platform to carry the Ceres payload. Two satellites would be launched to provide an operational Ceres service, industry officials have said.

The EliteBus is derived from Thales Alenia Space’s work on the Iridium Next low-orbit and O3b medium-orbit constellations. Industry officials said a Ceres order in 2013 or 2014 would enable construction to take advantage of synergies with the ongoing Iridium and O3b work.

The French Defence Ministry already has contracted work on a next-generation optical reconnaissance system. Here too, Le Drian said France would like to pool resources with other nations building their own systems.

“France wants to apply to space-based intelligence an approach based on mutual interdependence with European allies that have their own space capacity,” the ministry said in a document accompanying the white paper.

In the past six years, Germany and Italy have launched their own radar reconnaissance satellite systems, and Italy has agreed to purchase an Israeli high-resolution optical reconnaissance satellite as part of an offset package involving the sale to Israel of jet training aircraft.

Spain is building its own optical and radar satellites.

Efforts to knit these separate systems into a single European network have failed.

The white paper confirms that a next-generation military telecommunications satellite system will be built to succeed the aging Syracuse 3 satellites, with a tentative in-service date of around 2020. Britain and Italy have replacement schedules at least somewhat compatible with the French dates, and France has begun separate bilateral talks with both governments on a common effort.

The white paper makes no mention of the possibility that France might sell its Syracuse 3 assets to the private sector and then lease capacity that would be owned and maintained by the private sector. At one point, French military planners had hoped to generate more than $500 million by selling the Syracuse assets to the private sector, which would then lease bandwidth to French military forces.

The sale-and-leaseback scenario loses value with each year that the current Syracuse satellites get closer to retirement and the need to be replaced.

The white paper says that one reason France places such high priority on reconnaissance is that its Exclusive Economic Zone comprises 11 million square kilometers, or 3 percent of the world’s ocean surface — second only to the United States.

The document says France, and Europe, have a strategic interest in South America because of the presence there of Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport in French Guiana, which is French territory.

With France’s defense strategy now outlined, defense planners will move to the nuts-and-bolts task of finding budgets for the priority missions. A military program law announcing the 2014 budget guidelines is expected to be published late this summer.