European Military Satcom Pooling Deal Could Portend Something Bigger

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BRUSSELS — The European Defence Agency (EDA) on Sept. 28 signed a three-year contract with Astrium Services to act as a brokerage for commercial Ku-, Ka- and C-band satellite capacity on behalf of the defense ministries of five European nations.

EDA officials said they hope the deal, which was years in the making, is the thin end of a wedge that could lead to the joint investment by European governments in next-generation military satellite communications systems.

If that is the case, the wedge begins very thin — just 2.3 million euros ($3 million) invested by the five nations for the three-year pilot effort.

With these funds, Astrium Services will become a one-stop shop for commercial bandwidth required by the defense forces of France, Italy, Poland, Romania and the United Kingdom.

EDA and Astrium Services have produced a catalog of prices for satellite bandwidth by frequency and by region. A nation asking for 10 megahertz of capacity between the Horn of Africa and Western Europe, for example, will agree to the catalog price.

It will then be up to Astrium Services to negotiate a lower price with the satellite bandwidth provider as an incentive. The company will also be able to negotiate for lower prices if several nations want the same kind of capacity at the same time, permitting Astrium Services to lease a larger amount of capacity, and in some cases for longer periods.

The five founding nations of the European Satellite Communications Procurement Cell include three — France, Italy and the United Kingdom — that already have their own national military satellite telecommunications systems.

Notable by their absence are Germany and Spain, whose defense ministries also operate their own satellite communications systems.

EDA Chief Executive Claude-France Arnould, in a press briefing here during which the contract was signed, said some nations remain wary of what they view as complicated, bureaucratic multinational endeavors even if they understand the cost savings that such programs promise.

“We have to take this seriously,” Arnould said. “We have to make them know that dealing with multiple other nations is more complex than dealing only with one or two; we have the will to make this not complex.”

Astrium Services Chief Executive Eric Beranger said he hoped that the contract’s signature after such a long negotiating period will help break the ice among nations who were reluctant to join the EDA effort until they saw the satcom cell, which remains a pilot project, fully operational.

“There is a learning curve,” Beranger said, “and there is also the chicken-and-egg problem. To work together we needed a framework, and for that we needed people convinced that it would work.”

Beranger said that for the moment the program does not include pooling of bandwidth in X-band, which is mostly used by defense forces. Astrium Services markets X-band capacity it owns on Britain’s Skynet military satellites and an X-band payload on commercial fleet operator Telesat’s Anik G1 satellite set for launch in the coming months.

Rodolphe Paris, who headed EDA’s satcom project team, expressed optimism that other nations would join the project with their own contributions once they saw the satcom brokerage in action.

But the real promise of what EDA is doing, Arnould said, could be to persuade the five nations operating their own systems to join forces in a joint military telecommunications effort in the coming decade.

Paris said there is a “window of opportunity that is opening now” in that the existing military constellations need to be replaced starting around 2017 and continuing into the middle of the next decade. France, for example, has already contracted for studies to explore alternatives for its next-generation Syracuse system. A decision is expected in 2013 or 2014.

EDA estimates that if these nations pooled their resources into a common effort that preserved national autonomy, they could save at least 1.5 billion to 2 billion euros. Going it alone, he said, likely would cost between 10 billion and 12 billion euros as each nation builds and launches its own infrastructure.

Arnould said a recent meeting of EDA defense ministers highlighted the fact that the current public spending crisis many of their governments are confronting should argue in favor of a common satellite system.

Arnould said that while satellite builders, ground infrastructure providers and launch service providers may prefer multiple national programs to a single European effort, the budget crisis in Europe may mean the choice of some governments is between a multinational program and no program at all.