SES Astra 2G Could Serve as Placeholder for Luxembourg’s Proposed GovSat Military Satellite

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PARIS — A commercial satellite owned by fleet operator SES of Luxembourg and scheduled for launch Nov. 28 contains a military Ka- and X-band payload that will help secure a Luxembourg-registered orbital slot reservation that otherwise expires in January, the Luxembourg Defense Minister said.

The Luxembourg government has a special interest in keeping the orbital slot because it plans to create, with SES, a joint-venture company to sell military satellite bandwidth to the NATO alliance and individual NATO governments and Luxembourg allies.

The project, called GovSat, has not yet cleared final approval with the Luxembourg government. SES’s board of directors is scheduled to review it Dec. 4 on the assumption that, by then, the government go-ahead will have been given.

At that point, SES would select from among the prospective satellite prime contractors for GovSat. Bidders include Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Virginia, and Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy — both of which have specialized in relatively small telecommunications spacecraft.

In a document dated Nov. 4, Luxembourg Defense Minister Etienne Schneider makes the GovSat case, arguing that in addition to helping Luxembourg fulfill its NATO obligations in a way that brings benefits to Luxembourg, GovSat will tap into growing demand for military Ka-band and X-band capacity on satellites that have not been hardened to withstand radiation from nuclear explosions and thus are less costly to build and operate.

The document notably forecasts that the NATO alliance will be doubling the amount of military-frequency satellite capacity it wants at its disposal once its current contract, using British, French and Italian military satellites, expires in 2019.

The United Nations, the European Union and individual governments without their own military systems should also be steady GovSat customers, the document says.

The immediate priority is securing the orbital slot, whose location is not identified but whose reservation with international frequency regulators expires at the end of the year.

SES’s Astra 2G satellite, built mainly to bolster existing capacity for direct-broadcast television into Britain and Ireland, will be used to “bring into use” the Luxembourg military satellite system by occupying the future GovSat slot for at least three months. That is enough, under current International Telecommunication Union rules, to preserve a reservation.

Once it has fulfilled this task, Astra 2G will be moved to its permanent location at 28.2 or 28.5 degrees east, one of SES’s key TV-broadcast orbital neighborhoods.

SES spokesman Yves Feltes on Nov. 19 declined to comment on the Schneider document, saying GovSat had not yet been given company approval, and referred questions about the program to the Luxembourg government. It is unclear whether the GovSat partners have a backup in the form of a satellite already in orbit carrying the same military frequencies that could be stationed at the GovSat slot for the required three months.

The document details why Luxembourg, which is one of the European nations that have purchased access to the U.S. Wideband Global Satcom military X- and Ka-band constellation, wants to get into the military satellite operations business.

While WGS membership gives Luxembourg access to the entire WGS constellation on a pro rata basis, Luxembourg must seek U.S. military permission before loaning its WGS share to another nation — a sovereignty constraint.

Getting access to the British, French, Italian, Spanish or German military satellite communications networks directly or through NATO is a viable option, but access procedures are cumbersome and the capacity is expensive, the document says.

Commercial capacity is less costly and can be purchased on an as-needed basis, but civilian bandwidth is less secure and more subject to interference than military bandwidth, the document says. Demand for commercial capacity in crisis means governments must compete with broadcast networks, international organizations and others for beams over the crisis area.

The United Nations uses 350 megahertz of capacity on four commercial satellites spaced around the world, but U.N. officials would be receptive to switching to military bandwidth if it were affordable, the document says.

Assuming quick Luxembourg government approval, GovSat would be launched in 2017.

Asked by the government to assess the project, the Luxembourg Chamber of Commerce highlighted the fact that NATO and the European Union have not yet made clear how much satellite capacity they want in the future, meaning GovSat includes a risk of softer-than-expected demand.

The Luxembourg government has agreed to purchase 100 million euros ($125 million) in GovSat capacity over 10 years starting in 2017 to reduce project risks.

One of the unusual aspects of GovSat is that the joint venture company will ask customers to commit to restrictions related to the use of GovSat bandwidth to guide unmanned combat aerial vehicles.

The document is unclear about what international law currently says about combat drones, but the Luxembourg government realizes it has little hope of overseeing all uses of the bandwidth it sells to customers.

The government solicited outside legal opinion about its third-party-liability exposure if a drone strike was conducted using GovSat capacity. The conclusion: GovSat would not be liable so long as its customer contracts stipulate that the capacity must not be used in violation of international law.

One official said the Luxembourg governing coalition, which includes the Greens party, is already at pains to portray GovSat as a communications system, and not a weapon.

Concerns about GovSat’s use with drones rose in October when a Yemen national sued the German government, claiming a U.S. drone attack in Yemen that killed a family member was coordinated via satellite through the U.S. Air Force Base in Ramstein, Germany.