After years of hand wringing in Europe over the

billions of euros

spent on separate military satellite telecommunications systems operated by Britain, France, Italy and Spain – with two German national satellites under construction and scheduled for launch in 2009 – 2008 should be the year when the first bilateral European system is ordered



decisions taken by the French and Italian heads of state, most recently at a Nov. 30 summit in Nice, France, the French and Italian defense ministries are scheduled to contract for a Sicral 2 military telecommunications satellite early this year. The satellite would launch in 2011.

Also expected is a contract for a dual-use Ka-band satellite, called Athena-Fidus, for broadband links to military forces that do not require encryption, and for civilian government use in France and Italy. Athena-Fidus tentatively is scheduled for launch by 2012.

Industry officials

also have speculated that 2008 could see a change in the ownership structure of Spain’s military satellite communications system, which includes the Spainsat satellite at 30 degrees west longitude and, as backup, the Xtar-Eur satellite at 29 degrees east longitude. Xtar-Eur is majority-owned by Loral Space and Communications of New York, with Hisdesat of Spain having a minority stake. Hisdesat also provides Spanish defense forces with capacity aboard Spainsat.

has been less successful than predicted in winning U.S. Defense Department business. In 2008, financial pressures on the company are likely to increase because it is under contract to purchase capacity aboard Spainsat in addition to filling Xtar-Eur.

biggest shareholder is satellite-fleet operator Hispasat of Madrid, whose ownership

mix has changed with the arrival of Abertis Telecom as the main private stakeholder

. The Spanish government has resisted an Abertis takeover of Hispasat, and how Spanish authorities and Loral will meet the Xtar-Eur challenges remains unclear.

The contractor

for the French-Italian Sicral 2 and Athena-Fidus satellites is not in doubt, as the Franco-Italian ThalesAlenia Space is the only company seriously considered. ThalesAlenia Space’s component parts in France and Italy also built the French Syracuse and Italian Sicral systems already in orbit.

“We are going to have to run some sort of bid competition for Athena-Fidus, if only to be able to benchmark the price we get from ThalesAlenia Space,” said one French government official.

What remains in doubt, according to European industry officials, is whether the work-share and other details will be agreed to early enough to permit the satellite to be launched in 2011 or 2012,

as Italian Defense Ministry authorities have requested.

France already has its two third-generation Syracuse 3 satellites, 3A and 3B, safely in orbit and is rolling out mobile communications gear this year to outfit its armed forces. Syracuse also offers capacity to the NATO alliance under a multi-year agreement that includes contributions from Britain’s Skynet 5 system. Skynet 5A and 5B

also are operating in orbit, and Skynet 5C is scheduled for launch in mid-2008.

Italy is also a contributor to NATO under the agreement with France and Britain;

Italy has prime responsibility for providing the UHF capacity for NATO’s use.

Italy’s Sicral 1 satellite was launched in 2001. It suffered a brief service interruption in late 2006 for reasons that remain unclear, but Italian officials say it has returned to full service at its 16.2 degrees east longitude slot.

1B is scheduled for launch this year aboard a Sea Launch Co. rocket, and is intended to operate in

an orbital slot at 11.8 degrees east longitude. The satellite

will have two mobile SHF-band spot beams – double the capacity of Sicral 1. Its UHF capacity of 15 channels will triple the capacity of Sicral 1. Like Sicral 1, Sicral 1B includes two EHF-band transponders.

A solo launch aboard the heavy-lift Sea Launch rocket – as opposed to flying the satellite as a co-passenger aboard Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket –

is expected

to place Sicral 1B close enough to its final orbital destination so that it has enough fuel to last for at least 15 years, and possibly much longer.

But to meet its NATO commitments, Italy needs two satellites in orbit, and it remains questionable as to whether Sicral 1 can remain at full operational strength beyond 2011.

This requirement is driving Sicral 2’s planned 2011 launch date and in turn is why Italian defense authorities are pushing for the satellite to be under contract this year.

Sicral 2, to be operated in

an orbital slot at 37 degrees east – Italian and French officials say this location could change – will feature a French-provided SHF payload and an Italian-built UHF payload. It will have

19 spot beams, of which six can be activated simultaneously for signal collection, according to an Italian Defense Ministry project summary.