LONDON — NATO is facing a fast-approaching deadline for replacing its satellite telecommunications capacity that, if missed, will result in “satcom blackouts” at a time when the alliance’s engagements are extending far beyond its original borders, a NATO official said.

The 28-nation NATO currently leases capacity aboard British, French and Italian national military telecommunications satellites in the SHF and UHF frequency bands. The arrangement is part of a contract vehicle called NATO Satcom Post-2000 for which NATO agreed to pay 457 million euros, or $617 million at current exchange rates, between 2005 and 2019.

While a 2019 contract end is more than enough time for most telecommunications satellite programs, it is the equivalent of tomorrow for NATO’s cumbersome procurement process, said Malcolm Green, chief of the Networking Information Infrastructure Communications Services at the NATO C3 Agency.

“We need to get moving,” Green said here Nov. 29 during the Global Milsatcom conference organized by SMi Group. “It will take seven to 10 years to get the funds, commit to construction and so forth. We have 28 nations, all with sovereign requirements. Failing to take action today will result in satcom blackouts.”

NATO’s current thinking is that it needs to be able to support forces deployed as far as 15,000 kilometers from its Brussels headquarters, which means a region stretching as far south and east as Australia.

Green said NATO chiefs have accepted the fact that a large portion of the alliance’s expected future communications demand is dependent on the availability of satellite bandwidth. They also have accepted that NATO probably should not purchase its own satellite fleet, but rather join one or more national military telecommunications satellite efforts as a major customer.

That is what NATO elected to do for the current contract, which gives NATO access to Britain’s Skynet 4 and Skynet 5 satellites, owned and operated by Astrium Services’ Paradigm division; the French government-owned and -operated Syracuse 3 spacecraft; and Italy’s government-owned Sicral system. The three nations made a joint bid to NATO to win the contract.

A separate contract for EHF capacity valued at 191 million euros in 2004 was never signed because neither the United States nor France — the only two NATO members then with EHF satellites under construction — was able to meet NATO’s acquisition schedule.

Green said that the resources set aside for EHF remain available today and can be used as part of a NATO Satcom 2020 purchasing program.

Green said that, with hindsight, NATO was smart to have opted for a leasing arrangement for the current contract. “Had we decided then to replace our existing constellation, we would have ended up today with lots of coverage over the North Atlantic, when where it’s needed is over Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq,” Green said. “NATO is not going to be in the business of owning and operating satellites.”

NATO is still determining how much of its future capacity will need to be hardened to survive a nuclear explosion in orbit, and how much of it will need only minor encryption.

British officials appear happy with their decision to outsource all their beyond-line-of-sight communications to Paradigm, and have extended the current contract until 2022. But France continues to debate whether to move forward with a sale-and-leaseback proposal for the Syracuse system.

French Air Force Gen. Yves Arnaud, who heads the French Joint Staff’s recently created Space Office, told a space policy conference in Paris Dec. 6 that the jury is still out on the merits of ownership versus leasing. France and Italy have agreed to jointly fund two military telecommunications satellites, one devoted to unencrypted data links using military Ka-band frequencies, the other containing separate French and Italian payloads.

Britain and France began discussions a year ago on a possible joint milsatcom system, but negotiations appear to have been slowed by longstanding concerns over how to preserve national sovereignty in a joint development effort.

“There is a fair bit of work still to be done, particularly on the sovereignty space,” said David Lascelles, deputy head of information services and systems programs at the British Ministry of Defence. “Some cooperation models allow you to retain sovereignty. But there is a question: How sovereign is joint sovereignty?” Lascelles said the British-French scenario is only one of several that British defense officials are considering. The U.S. military’s plans for future satellite bandwidth, and the nascent efforts of the European Defense Agency encouraging governments to pool their satellite needs, also must be considered.

The U.S. Defense Department today gets more than 80 percent of its satellite bandwidth from commercial satellite providers on the open market. Whether this split will evolve in the coming years is unclear. According to the U.S. European Command, U.S. forces engaged in the NATO-led campaign in Libya relied mainly on military satellite bandwidth, not commercial capacity.

Lascelles conceded that given the state of the British and French government budgets, the appeal of a joint program has not diminished considering the likely cost savings.

Green said preliminary estimates show that given NATO’s likely future bandwidth requirements, a budget of between 900 million and 1 billion euros should be set aside.

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