In a concrete signal of their new partnership, the French space agency, CNES, and the French arms-procurement agency, DGA, have agreed to co-finance a demonstration eavesdropping satellite and select a contractor this summer from among three bidders.

French government and industry officials said EADS Astrium, Alcatel Space and Safran’s Sagem division have submitted competing bids to build up to three small satellites to monitor radar communications from low-Earth orbit. Paris-based Sagem’s bid includes the participation of OHB System of Bremen, Germany, with the satellites based on OHB’s SAR-Lupe radar reconnaissance platform, officials said.

DGA and CNES have budgeted a total of about 150 million euros ($195 million) for the project, tentatively named Elint, with a launch foreseen in late 2008 or early 2009.

The sponsoring agencies expect that Elint, despite its relatively modest budget, will nudge France towards an operational eavesdropping capability — which DGA has said is a priority — and also fulfill a CNES goal of developing expertise in flying satellites in formation.

Elint will be the fifth French satellite system, all based in small-satellite designs, designed to investigate radio communications and radar signals.

The S80-T satellite, which was launched in 1992, studied UHF-band communications for CNES. DGA’s Cerise satellite demonstrator for tracking radar signals was launched in 1995. DGA followed with the Clementine communications-frequencies eavesdropping demonstrator in 1999. The four-satellite Essaim system, which also was designed to survey communication frequencies, was placed into low-Earth orbit in December.

DGA’s habit of launching demonstration platforms instead of proceeding with operational spacecraft is born of budget necessity. T hat strategy has not escaped criticism from officials at the French Joint Military Staff, some of whom have questioned the utility to French defense forces of placing technology experiments into orbit.

French Air Force Col. Yves Blin, who heads the space office at the French Joint Military Staff, said CNES and DGA will attempt to make the Elint project into something more than just an experiment.

“We do not have the money to launch an Elint-type system on our own, and we are learning more with each demonstrator,” Blin said during the “Military Space: Questions in Europe” conference here April 27. “We expect Elint to deliver operationally useful data. It will be used as more than just an experiment.”

CNES President Yannick d’Escatha agreed, saying the Elint contract is intended to take the demonstrator series a step further toward a fully functioning system.

CNES and DGA in January signed an agreement covering research and development as part of a broader effort to bring CNES more closely into the service of French defense forces.

A DGA team works full-time at CNES, and CNES engineers are being made aware of the French military’s thinking on future satellite systems. Officials said that in the past, CNES has focused on military work only on a contract-by-contract basis. CNES, which has been contract manager for France’s Helios optical reconnaissance satellites, routinely does work for the French military.

French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, in an April 26 press briefing announcing CNES’ six-year budget, said the DGA team stationed at the space agency “follows all of the projects at CNES and has already led to the formulation of plans that are coherent with the strategic stakes of the space sector. The concrete effects are already visible.”

Alliot-Marie said Elint will permit CNES “to significantly enlarge its field of activity toward new technologies.” CNES’ organization, she said, “will reinforce the collaboration between the Defense Ministry and CNES in all of the agency’s activities, not just those with defense applications. We can’t content ourselves with what we have today. I want a total implication of defense teams in CNES’ work.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.