Britain and France Revisit Joint Milsatcom Program

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PARIS — The British and French governments on Nov. 2 agreed to take a fresh look at whether to combine their next-generation military satellite telecommunications programs to save money, a long-discussed idea that up to now has always found ways to be set aside for later.

Meeting in London, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy agreed to a broad range of defense cooperation agreements, including a groundbreaking accord on cooperation in nuclear arms, next-generation unmanned aerial vehicles, common standards for several arms systems and a combined rapid deployment force.

The agreement on satellite communications is more limited. In a statement issued after the meeting, the two heads of state said they agreed to “assess the potential for cooperation on future military satellite communications, with a view to reducing overall costs while preserving national sovereignty. We aim to complete a joint concept study in 2011 for the next satellites to enter into service between 2018 and 2022.”

Multiple studies over the years have made clear that European governments could save hundreds of millions of euros or pounds by building a common military satellite telecommunications system, even if individual governments maintained separate payloads on spacecraft housing other governments’ payloads.

But potential agreements — between France and Britain, between these governments and Germany, and other combinations — have confronted industrial policy issues and have gone nowhere. The result is that France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain all have separate military telecommunications satellites.

Not only are the systems separate, but their management is also a hodgepodge of private- and public-sector ownership. Britain, for example, has given over its Skynet military satellite system to a private contractor, Paradigm Secure Communications, part of Astrium Services, which owns the satellites and leases capacity to British defense forces.

Italy also has used private-sector funds for its Sicral system, which is owned by Italian authorities but has reserved a small amount of the capacity for commercial leasing. Germany has a hybrid system combining a long-term lease of capacity with German government ownership of the use of the system. Spain has outsourced its system to the private sector, reserving part of the capacity for Spanish military use, but the commercial venture created to manage the project has had trouble making the business profitable.

France, which is currently on its third generation of Syracuse military telecommunications satellites, is mulling whether to sell the system to the private sector and then lease it back. While the government has said it wants to move in that direction, no formal decree to that effect has been written, and no formal bids from industry have been solicited.

France and Italy have agreed to jointly build a Sicral 2 military communications satellite that will house separate French and Italian payload electronics, a step that both nations have said could lead to tighter cooperation on their next-generation systems.