Editorial | France, Germany Find Key to Cooperation in Optical Recon

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Just when it appeared as though European countries, despite all good intentions, were incapable of collaborating more closely on operational satellite programs, along comes word that Germany is buying into France’s next-generation optical satellite reconnaissance system.

Under an agreement disclosed Feb. 9 by Laurent Collet-Billon, head of the French arms procurement agency, Germany will make a substantial investment in a third satellite for France’s Optical Space Component (CSO) in return for access to the full system. The first two CSO satellites are being built in France by Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia Space under a contract worth $1 billion, with launches scheduled for 2017 and 2018. That contract includes an option for a third, partner-backed satellite that Mr. Collet-Billon said would be built in France.

CSO
The Optical Space Component, or CSO, satellite. Credit: Airbus Defence and Space and Thales Alenia Space

Mr. Collet-Billon said the CSO investment is part of a larger deal in which France will invest in the ground segment for Germany’s next-generation radar reconnaissance satellite system, dubbed SARah. The three-satellite system is the designated follow on to Germany’s SAR-Lupe radar constellation now in orbit.

This is a welcome development, especially coming on the heels of France’s decision to go it alone on its newest military communications satellite system, Comsat-NG, after trying in vain to find a suitable investment partner. Timing and budgetary woes among prospective participants clearly complicated France’s efforts. But European military officials also have cited issues such as national pride and the desire to maintain independent capabilities in strategic domains as underlying obstacles.

There will always be reasonable arguments, even among the closest allies, in favor of maintaining separate, independent military space capabilities, even if they overlap. But given the undeniable economic and strategic benefits — the latter including easy data sharing in coalition operations — of co-investment and collaboration, the go-it-alone approach should be a last resort rather than the default option.

While France initially embarked down a solo path on CSO, it wisely built a partner on-ramp into the contract. Whether or not there’s still a window to do something similar on Comsat-NG, France and Germany have demonstrated their belief that the pros of collaboration outweigh the cons. Here’s hoping that the deal, which some officials cautioned in February has not been finalized, holds.