Europe Faces Uphill Battle on Consolidated Recon Program

by












  Space News Business

Europe Faces Uphill Battle on Consolidated Recon Program

By PETER B. de SELDING
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 09 June 2009
04:14 pm ET






PARIS
— European defense officials are cautiously hopeful that the support recently given to a proposed European space-based reconnaissance system by the European Defence Agency (EDA) and the European Union will nudge the slow-moving project forward.

But these same officials say privately that the project, called the Multinational Space-Based Imaging System, or MUSIS, continues to face an uphill battle to overcome the hesitations of individual governments to place even a piece of their military reconnaissance capability into a common European arena.

European Union ministers on May 29 endorsed the MUSIS initiative taken by EDA, whose job will be to broaden the program’s appeal in
Europe
by inviting other European Union nations to join it.

More than two years after being assigned the ambitious goal of a unified optical and radar system by the end of the next decade, MUSIS has evolved into a substantially more modest program in which multiple national programs are likely to remain, despite their cost and data-sharing inefficiencies, officials said.

The long-held axiom concerning space-based intelligence – data is not shared, but exchanged – remains true in Europe, especially since most of the most active nations in space-based Earth observation have only just recently fielded or financed their systems.

That is the case in
Germany
, whose five-satellite SAR-Lupe military radar reconnaissance constellation is already in orbit; and for
Italy
, whose Cosmo-Skymed radar system has three satellites in orbit and a fourth scheduled for launch in 2010.

It is also true of
Spain
, whose Paz radar satellite is scheduled for launch in 2012, with the Ingenio optical spacecraft to be in orbit a year later. These two satellites together are often referred to as
Spain
‘s Seosat project.

“When we started two years ago we had ambitious objectives” of trying to create a single European system, one French defense official involved in MUSIS said. “Now we are agreed that different nations will provide space components. We have an optical cooperation with Spain, Belgium, Greece and France, and we are ready to start a Phase B study of a future architecture. But there are different approaches as to how we federate the various components.”

That has always been the issue with MUSIS. The problem now is that the window of opportunity for creating a pan-European space-reconnaissance architecture is closing because of deadlines in several nations, notably
France
, for deciding how to replace current space-based reconnaissance assets.

The pressure on MUSIS has been slightly reduced because the Helios 2A satellite, launched in December 2004, continues to operate without problems, according to French defense officials. Its Helios 2B successor, which had been scheduled for launch in early 2009, is now set for launch late this year. That gives
France
at least a little more time before it needs to freeze the design of the next-generation Helios system.

“By the end of 2009 we will need to converge [the different nations’ views] on MUSIS, to decide on its overall design and to begin work on a common ground system,” the French military official said. “I am confident we can get there.”

A German defense official agreed. “Even if negotiations on this are very hard and we are finding some problems today, MUSIS is alive and we will create the system with the six nations.”

Belgium
,
France
,
Germany
,
Greece
,
Italy
and
Spain
are the six MUSIS partners. Earlier this decade these nations crafted a set of common operational requirements for a MUSIS system, but they have been unable to move quickly to the next step.

France
pioneered the idea of a multinational space-based observation system by inviting other nations to join the Helios optical and infrared reconnaissance satellite program as junior partners.
Belgium
,
Greece
,
Italy
and
Spain
have agreed to take 2.5 percent stakes in Helios 2.

Italy
and
Spain
were shareholders in the two-satellite Helios 1 system, and
Spain
has a 3 percent stake in
France
‘s two-satellite Pleiades high-resolution optical satellite system to be launched in 2010 and 2011.
Belgium
has a 4 percent share of Pleiades,
Sweden
has 3 percent and
Austria
has 0.4 percent.

Germany
also has access to Helios 2 through a bilateral deal that gives French defense forces access to SAR-Lupe data. Each nation will have a ground station capable of receiving the other’s imagery. Similarly,
Italy
and
France
have agreed on a sharing scheme between Helios and
Italy
‘s Cosmo-Skymed system.

But instead of leading toward greater cooperation and interdependence, the Helios experience whetted
Spain
‘s appetite for its own system. “It has been sometimes difficult to get information in a timely way, and crises don’t wait,” one Spanish defense official said about Spain’s decision to build its own optical and radar system. “Full national autonomy is a clear requirement for us, and it permits us to [favor] our national industry. MUSIS started two years ago with a good idea for cooperation, where everyone shared the cost. Today it is very different, and MUSIS decisions must be at the political level.”