PARIS — European Union (EU) officials have all but abandoned the idea of pooling Europe’s separate military satellite communications systems into a single constellation and have adopted a backup strategy that would merge the less-strategic satellite requirements into a pan-European system.

The climb-down from the previous ambition reflects the difficulty that European Union governments have in placing their most-sensitive communications needs into a group format, even if it would mean saving hundreds of millions of euros.

The EU Council, which is the 28-nation European Union’s highest decision-making body and includes its members’ heads of state, is expected to review the latest set of less-ambitious proposals during a meeting on European defense and security policy scheduled for Dec. 19-20 in Brussels.

EU ministers on Nov. 19 and Nov. 25 adopted a set of recommendations from the European Defense Agency (EDA) that would leave core command-and-control functions to individual governments buying their own hardened and encrypted satellite systems.

In a report prepared for the December council meeting, which was adopted with little comment by the ministers, EDA basically says: Leave the most-strategic satellite links, which EDA calls Milsatcom, to individual governments.

The focus now is on the two other layers, which EDA calls Civsatcom, for the least-critical communications, which can be handled by commercial satellites; and Govsatcom, where EDA hopes to have a role in creating a pan-European effort.

The long-term goal remains the same: Take advantage of the fact that all five European nations with their own independent military satellite telecommunications assets — Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain — will need to replace their current geostationary-orbiting satellites sometime between 2018 and 2025.

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EDA’s goal, therefore, is to move, by excruciatingly small steps, into a position from which these nations and EU member states without their own satellite capacity could create a single Govsatcom system.

“After 2025 there will be an opportunity to think together,” said Gerard Lapierre, an EDA project officer. “Govsatcom is a gray area between commercial satcom and hardened milsatcom.”

In a Nov. 6 presentation to the Global Milsatcom conference in London organized by SMi Group, Lapierre said that while progress in bringing EU nations together on military satellite systems is slow, it does exist.

The EDA’s satellite communications procurement cell, which pools a small amount of funds to purchase larger chunks of commercial satellite bandwidth, for longer periods at lower cost per megahertz, now counts eight member nations.

Lapierre said the project, which is being managed by Astrium Services, has already secured two orders, one each from France and Italy, “with more to come.”

It took several years for EDA to pull together sufficient support for even this modest cost-sharing project, which leases bandwidth from commercial fleet operators SES, Intelsat, Telesat and Eutelsat.

Significantly, Germany is not yet a member of the procurement cell although Germany is one of the five nations with its own capacity. The other four nations with their own satellites are members.

Lapierre said one way the EU can insert itself more fully into Europe’s discussion of military satellite issues is to coordinate the European push to widen the amount of radio spectrum reserved for military use at the next meeting of world governments to allocate radio spectrum and orbital slots.

The meeting, called the World Radiocommunication Conference, is organized every four years by the International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations affiliate.

In the report to the EU Council that will be presented to the December summit, EDA puts satellite communications in the context of the EU’s wider need for the kinds of services that satellites are best placed to perform.

To protect Europe’s future Galileo positioning, navigation and timing constellation, the EU must begin to develop its own expertise in space situational awareness. Galileo is being financed by European civil authorities but has an encrypted, government-only payload called the Public Regulated Service that is the equivalent of the military code on the newer U.S. GPS satellites.

To be able to coordinate European military interventions, the EU itself must have access to Govsatcom, the document says, suggesting that the EU would be a shareholder in a Govsatcom system for its own account. Other nations would join as individual states.

The document says the EU should make use of its Copernicus Earth observation system of satellites as the first step toward development of a high-resolution system that could begin by paying for capacity on existing national systems.

None of these is a new idea. In the past, France and Germany have balked, for different reasons, at letting the EU Satellite Center outside Madrid have access to their military reconnaissance satellites. The satellite center provides crisis monitoring reports to EU governments using satellite data and has been left to purchase satellite images from DigitalGlobe of the United States and other commercial providers. 

But EDA and other government officials hope that the pressure on military budgets in EU nations in general will drive these governments into a money-saving common effort.

Follow Peter on Twitter: @pbdes

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.