PARIS — The French arms procurement agency, DGA, operating under what officials said is a deadline with little flexibility, remains hopeful of striking a partnership this year with the British government on future military satellite telecommunications.
Both nations’ concerns about sharing strategic communications capacity means a fully bilateral satellite system is out of the question, officials said. But one promising avenue being pursued is the idea of sharing the cost of an in-orbit spare spacecraft.
“By doing this, we can save nearly half of what we would save in a fully integrated system,” said Jean-Pierre Devaux, DGA’s director of strategy.
Addressing a space policy conference here Feb. 13 organized by Euroconsult and the French aerospace industries organization, GIFAS, Devaux said France’s existing Syracuse 3 satellites’ in-orbit life expectancy will force a decision on a next-generation system by late this year or early in 2015 for replacement satellites to launched in 2018-2019.
Britain’s Skynet 5 military satellite communications system is younger than Syracuse 3 and will not reach its expected retirement date until early in the next decade. Whether French and British military planners will be able to come to terms on a satellite-sharing deal before France needs to sign a next-generation Syracuse contract is unclear.
Even at a time of pressure on military budgets in Europe, the idea of sharing satellite telecommunications capacity remains surprisingly sensitive. Resistance to pooling and sharing remains strong despite the substantial savings offered, European Defense Agency Chief Executive Claude-France Arnould said.
“There is this enormous paradox,” Arnould said. “We all talk about cooperation until you get to this subject, which is the most disappointing area as far as real pooling and sharing is concerned.”
France and Italy have agreed to place separate payloads on the Sicral 2 satellite, set for launch late this year. The two nations’ militaries are also sharing the use of the Athena-Fidus Ka-band broadband satellite, launched in February.
Devaux said France continues to discuss future cooperative efforts with Italy but cautioned that, as with Britain, the decision schedules are not aligned.
France’s new multiyear military spending plan foresees investing about 450 million euros ($608 million) per year on military space programs.
These include a post-Helios 2 optical and infrared reconnaissance system, on which early development is underway; and an upgrade of the Graves bistatic radar installation for space situational awareness. It also includes most of the funding for a future electronics-intelligence (Elint) satellite system called CERES.
France has launched several Elint demonstrator spacecraft to test which radar frequencies are most useful for eavesdropping. At one point, France said its demonstrators also could help generate support in Europe for a combined Elint effort.
With no takers elsewhere in Europe, CERES development was delayed but is now on track for a launch in 2020 or 2021. In December, DGA signed a contract with Airbus Defence and Space and— France’s two satellite prime contractors — to begin CERES definition studies, including work on what the ground infrastructure would consist of, and how it would be operated.
A DGA official said the contract, valued at 36.7 million euros, will be followed by a firm hardware-construction contract in 2015 for the delivery of three CERES satellites, which will be launched together and fly in formation in low Earth orbit. The official said it is too early to estimate full CERES system costs, although some French defense officials have said a working estimate is 300 million euros.
Devaux said the volume of data to come from CERES presents challenges of transmission and storage that have yet to be sorted out.
The European Commission, meanwhile, has begun a seven-year project to start development of a rudimentary space surveillance system, which will start by taking advantage of the French Graves and German TIRA tracking radars.
The commission has budgeted just 70 million euros for the seven-year program, a figure that some in France criticized as being too much to waste, and too little to make much progress.
Yves Arnaud, commander of the French joint staff’s space office, which was created in 2010, said French military authorities have overcome their initial reticence about the European effort and now support it. He said French hesitation was mainly due to possible differences between France and the European Commission over what space surveillance data could be published.
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