Comsat NG. Credit: Thales Alenia Space

France Opts To Bear Full Burden of Comsat NG

European governments appear to have missed a big opportunity for costs savings with the French Defense Ministry’s decision to move ahead with plans to procure a pair of dedicated military communications satellites from a pair of domestic manufacturers.

The Comsat NG, program, which France will now develop on its own, is but the latest example of Europe’s persistent inability to collaborate on expensive military space procurements, despite the oft-stated desire to do so.

France is one of five closely allied European countries that own military satellite communications assets, the others being Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain. Many of these capabilities overlap, meaning that with a little coordination these nations could spend less and still have plenty of satellite capacity at their disposal.

The European Defense Agency, an arm of the 28-member European Union, estimates that buying the next-generation systems together rather than separately could save European taxpayers up to 2 billion euros, or $2.5 billion. That’s a tidy sum, especially given the financial difficulties some countries face — even as they eye ever more ambitious milspace capabilities.

Italy and France are prime examples. Cash-strapped Italy had to scramble to secure funding for a follow on to its Cosmo-SkyMed civil-military radar satellite system, while France, though in better financial shape than its neighbor, is planning to invest in an electronic intelligence satellite program despite questions about its ability to finance the program through to completion.

France and Italy have a track record of collaboration in military satellite communications, most recently with the jointly funded Sicral 2 UHF- and SHF-band satellite scheduled to launch in the next few months. Italy was seen as a potential contributor to Comsat NG, the replacement for France’s aging Syracuse satellites, as were Britain and perhaps Spain.

According to French defense officials, however, Italy’s financial problems prevented its commitment, while Britain still has a few more years before it needs to begin procuring replacement capacity for its commercially operated Skynet 5 satellite system. With the Syracuse 3A and 3B satellites having launched in 2005 and 2006, France cannot afford to wait any longer on Comsat NG, the first of which is targeted for launch in 2021, these officials say.

That sounds reasonable enough, but European military officials also have cited national pride and self-reliance as factors in the inability of European allies to work more closely together on military space programs. Even if the potential volume of bandwidth demand justifies the combined number of satellites being deployed — and nobody seems to be making that case — surely the European allies could reap substantial savings by utilizing common satellite designs or sharing ground infrastructure.

Similar cooperative opportunities are being squandered in military Earth observation, where countries including France, Germany and Spain are deploying duplicative space and ground systems even though their militaries are more likely to operate as a coalition than separately.

“Where are we with European cooperation? Nowhere,” a clearly frustrated French official said late last year of the prospects for bringing Germany into a French-led optical Earth observation program.
The official could have just as easily been speaking about satellite communications.

There appears to be at least a glimmer of hope for an effort to pool European resources to get better deals on commercial satellite capacity for noncritical military use. The European Satellite Communications Procurement Cell currently has eight members, and others are expected to join.

But the program, while endorsed by key European heads of state, is still in its infancy, both in terms of current expenditures and future requirements planning. Even if it does take off in the next few years, the resulting savings pale in comparison with those that could be reaped through collaborative hardware procurements.

With the Comsat NG ship having sailed, the next opportunity appears to be the follow-on to the NATO Satcom Post-2000 program, which ends in 2019. It is by no means clear what form such a partnership might take — the current effort involves capacity from nationally owned systems.

Under the specific circumstances, it is difficult to blame French authorities for pressing ahead alone on Comsat NG. But on a broader level one must wonder why something that makes so much financial sense is proving so difficult to achieve. Regardless, should Comsat NG, or any of a number of European milspace programs, falter in the coming years due to funding woes, it will be relatively easy to cite at least one important reason why.