Defense Cuts Renew Hope for Anglo-French Milcom System

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LONDON — French and British military officials expressed hope that the necessity of budget cutbacks will drive them to do what they agree should be done but have been unable to do for two decades: cooperate in next-generation satellite telecommunications programs.

But they harbored no illusions that a multinational effort in satellite telecommunications, which makes sense at a time of unprecedented strains on defense budgets, would carry the day against concerns for national sovereignty, diverging procurement policies and schedules, and the continued weight of national industrial policy.

Speaking here Nov. 10 during the Global Milsatcom conference organized by SMi Group, French and British officials said their governments’ interests appear close enough to justify a detailed investigation of a common system to succeed the French Syracuse 3 and British Skynet 5 satellites. The effort was recently endorsed by both nations’ heads of state at a bilateral summit in London.

French Army Col. Jean-Francois Leca, head of studies of the next-generation Syracuse system at France’s arms procurement agency, DGA, said “perhaps the biggest driver” behind the Anglo-French effort is the squeeze on both nations’ defense spending.

In a joint presentation with David Lascelles, the British Defence Ministry’s program manager for future beyond-line-of-sight communications capabilities, Leca said it remains clear that Britain and France will retain secrets relating to satellite telecommunications that they will not share with each other.

The yearlong study on whether the French and British systems can be partially merged to save money will focus on how each side might retain sovereignty in a satellite system in which at least two nations participate.

Leca said the bilateral study assumes that the next-generation system will be satellites in geostationary orbit, like the current generation, and will have a hardened, encrypted X-band core capability and probably a Ka-band payload as well. A third UHF- or L-band frequency would be reserved for small user terminals and would assure interoperability.

“The core-level military communications, hardened and jam-resistant, will be expensive,” Leca said. “We need to reduce this level to the minimum necessary.” A second-level capability on the future system could feature civilian commercial technical standards for military users, while the third, least-protected level would be similar to a commercial Internet service.

Lascelles said the two commercial companies now providing British and French satellite communications hardware — Paradigm Secure Communications and Thales Alenia Space, respectively — were asked beginning in April to pick through the bones of past failed bilateral, trilateral and multilateral efforts to assure that the same errors were not repeated.

The two companies will produce a final report, to be reviewed by a bilateral working group, by the end of this year.

Key to the success of the project will be whether the operations model presented actually does offer both governments savings compared with what they already are spending. That in turn will depend on how flexible each nation is in reducing its core-level communications. “The more cooperation you get, the greater the savings,” Lascelles said, adding: “There is an appetite in both [defense] ministries for Anglo-French cooperation. [But] sovereignty may be one problem.”

Lascelles said that from Britain’s point of view, the industrial policy roadblock is minor given that Astrium, which owns Paradigm, has major satellite production sites in both Britain and France, and has cooperated with Thales Alenia Space on many satellite programs.

In addition to how to accommodate both nations’ demands for national autonomy and sovereignty, Britain and France will need to iron out issues related to their different program schedules. Despite joining Italy in a Sicral 2 military telecommunications satellite to be launched by early 2014 on which France and Italy will have separate payloads, France wants to replace its Syracuse 3 system around 2018.

Britain, which is purchasing capacity from Paradigm-owned Skynet 5 satellites built mainly to cover British military requirements, recently increased the amount of satellite bandwidth it wants in the coming years. That caused Paradigm to contract with its sister company, Astrium Satellites, for a fourth Skynet 5 satellite, which came with an extension, to 2022, of the Paradigm contract with the British Defence Ministry.

That means there is a four-year gap in the two nations’ schedules.

A final issue: Britain has outsourced all its beyond-line-of-sight military communications to Paradigm. The French government has said it favors a sale-and-leaseback scheme for Syracuse 3, but the effort has been stalled by legal constraints and the question of how to value the current Syracuse asset.

With the Sicral 2 decision, made earlier this year, the Syracuse valuation has changed. Also changing the valuation is that France and Italy are sharing the cost of an Athena-Fidus satellite, to be located at 25 degrees east in geostationary orbit, to provide unprotected, low-priority Ka-band broadband links. The program is being managed by the two nations’ defense ministries and by the French and Italian space agencies.