PARIS — Spain’s decision to lead a group of European nations with military satellite communications systems to study future capacity sharing is a signal that the long-struggling initiative may finally have the political traction it needs, European Defence Agency (EDA) Chief Executive Claude-France Arnould said.
Spain, along with Germany, has declined to join EDA’s satellite telecommunications capacity procurement cell, which pools cell members’ demand for commercial Ku-, Ka- and C-band satellite bandwidth to secure better terms from satellite operators.
France, Britain and Italy — the three other nations that have their own military satcom capacity — are founding members of the cell, which Brussels-based EDA said booked transactions of more than 1 million euros ($1.37 million) in 2013. The agency has said it expects to trim per-megahertz bandwidth costs by around 15 percent by pooling demand.
The European Satellite Communications Procurement Cell is managed by Airbus Defence and Space under a three-year contract that began in late 2012.
Eight European Union nations are currently members, with several more showing interest in future membership, EDA said.
EU heads of state in December endorsed EDA’s effort to encourage EU governments to collaborate on their next-generation military satellite communications. They gave EDA milestones to meet and said they would review progress on this and other projects, including European drone work and cybersecurity, in June 2015.
At an April 15 meeting in Luxembourg of EDA’s steering board, which occurred with a meeting of EU defense and foreign ministers, the agency gave an update on its progress since the December mandate from EU heads of state.
The agency has promised to deliver, by late this year, what it calls a “common staff target” of military satellite communications requirements of the five nations that have their own satellite capacity, and are members of the EDA-created committee to list requirements.
It is this board that Spain will chair.
If all goes as planned, a comprehensive program on sharing satellite access for noncritical military communications should be created by early 2016.
“Spain said it would take the lead to manage the work,” Arnould said during a press briefing after the EDA steering board meeting. “That means we have even more political impetus to move forward with what we are doing. We’re looking into consolidating military needs while — alongside of that — the [European Commission] is working on the identification of civil needs for satcom.”
The commission, which is the European Union’s executive arm, is determining future EU government needs for satellite bandwidth for border security, air traffic management, maritime surveillance, disaster response and other needs that are not “military” in the strictest sense.
EDA is also working on ways to amend the tax regimes in certain EU nations if current tax policy inhibits sharing of military assets.
As an illustration of how tax policy affects military strategy, the French government has said the tax status of military assets has complicated any move to privatize France’s Syracuse military satellite communications program in the way that Britain and, to a lesser degree, Germany have privatized theirs.
EDA in 2013 dropped its former goal of trying to persuade the five nations owning national military satellite communications systems to join forces on a single constellation. Savings of as much as 2 billion euros were predicted.
But concern about losing full control over command and control functions on hardened satellites proved impossible to overcome. What EDA is now proposing, and what EU heads of state endorsed, is a more limited goal of sharing the portion of the next-generation national satellite capacity that handles less-critical communications.
Each satellite-providing nation would make a portion of its capacity available to other nations, or to the European Commission. EDA calls this Govsatcom, as opposed to the more sensitive Milsatcom.
Many government and industry officials were disappointed at the lack of a clear endorsement given by the heads of state in December.
Arnould dismisses this.
“There is clearly a political will” behind the project, she said during the April 15 briefing. “You cannot say there isn’t. Now we need to move to practical implementation.”
The European Commission, in a February report analyzing the EDA’s effort, said two key events in the coming year or so will determine whether the agency’s efforts have real traction with its member governments.
The first event will be whether France, whose Syracuse 3 system is the first of the five to need replacement, includes some kind of sharing scheme when it moves forward on its next-generation system. A decision is expected this year on what France is now calling Comsat NG, with parallel design contracts to Airbus and to Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy.
French defense officials have said they need to have the next-generation system ready to launch starting in 2018. France has been discussing with Italy — with which it already shares the Sicral 2 satellite scheduled for launch this year — and with Britain on possible capacity-pooling schemes.
The second event will be when the NATO alliance selects a follow-on to its NATO Satcom Post-2000 program, which ends in 2019. The 15-year contract with Britain, France and Italy for pieces of those nations’ systems should be a good occasion to introduce a sharing scheme.
NATO’s successful experience with capacity leasing, “reinforced by Germany’s potential inclusion in the program, certainly represents a potential pooling and sharing model for the establishment of a European capacity,” the commission said.