Military Satellite Communications | Europe Faces Obstacles in Pooling Military Satellite Telecom Resources

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LE BOURGET, France — Persuading European governments to pool their resources in their next-generation military satellite telecommunications programs will be a lost cause if the sales pitch focuses on the savings a single European system would offer over today’s five separate national systems, the chairman of the European Union Military Committee said June 19.

Gen. Patrick de Rousiers said placing the accent on cost reduction will cause European defense ministries to reject the proposal because it would mean their budgets would be cut, de Rousiers said here during the Paris Air Show.

The European Defense Agency (EDA) of Brussels, an organization of the 27-nation European Union, has said replacing today’s separate British, French, German, Italian and Spanish military telecommunications satellites with a consolidated network owned by multiple nations would result in savings of at least 1 billion to 2 billion euros ($1.3 billion to $2.6 billion).

No one contests these figures, but de Rousiers said the natural reaction to that among the affected government defense ministries is negative because they believe their finance ministry counterparts will seize on the figures to cut defense budgets.

“As long as we use this vocabulary we will get nowhere,” de Rousiers said during an EDA conference on pooling and sharing of future military space investments.

The emphasis, de Rousiers said, should be on the operating efficiencies and force multiplication that could result if national defense authorities agreed to a joint development of at least a portion of their satellite telecommunications needs.

Heads of state of the 27 European Union governments are scheduled to meet in December to discuss defense and security policy. EDA Chief Executive Claude-France Arnould said the agency is working to place military satellite communications onto the agenda with a view to taking advantage of a rare window of opportunity in European procurement calendars.

Peter Round, EDA’s capabilities director, said that between 2018 and 2025, all five nations now operating military satellite communications systems will need to replace them. 

“If we’re going to grab this opportunity we need to act now, before it’s too late,” Round said.

EDA’s ruling board in April approved an effort called SecTelSat, or Secure Telecom by Satellite, which starts by having EDA and other European Union nations list their requirements for next-generation satellite systems.

SecTelSat proposes that a core group of nations build satellites and then lease portions of their capacity to European Union member states that do not have their own satellites.

EDA in September 2012 signed a three-year contract with Astrium Services under which Astrium coordinates the purchase of commercial satellite capacity in bulk on behalf of participating European governments, lowering per-megahertz costs.

Only five European Union nations — Britain, France, Italy, Poland and Romania — initially joined what EDA calls the European Satellite Communications Procurement Cell. But Belgium, Finland and Luxembourg have recently joined the effort, and EDA expects others to follow.

Arnould said EDA is aware that sovereignty issues, with militaries wanting to control their own communications assets, are only one of the obstacles to a pan-European effort. Industrial policy plays a role too, but Arnould said concern for the national industrial base should not be an argument against sharing satellite assets.

“Look at what European industry is proposing” for a made-in-Europe unmanned aerial vehicle program, Arnould said, referring to a joint proposal from three nations’ biggest aerospace conglomerates. “Sometimes industry is ahead of government thinking. I would not say industrial interests are against pooling and sharing if it is seen as a way to growth and maintaining the technological edge.”

Gen. Henry de Roquefeuil, military adviser to the president of the French space agency, CNES, which manages most French military space programs, said pooling resources does not mean losing autonomy over what he called the “sovereign core” of satellite assets.

But even for the core capability, cost savings can be realized through cooperation. France and Italy have agreed to share development of the Sicral 2 telecommunications satellite, which will have separate French and Italian SHF- and UHF-band payloads.

For less-critical communications, de Roquefeuil said, deeper collaborative efforts could be undertaken. But he said it remains an uphill struggle to structure a program that wins the support of several nations.