France Readies Comsat NG Order after Milsatcom Pooling Effort Falls Flat

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PARIS — The French Defense Ministry will order two military telecommunications satellites from French prime contractors in the coming weeks in a conventional procurement that likely will divide the work between Airbus Defence and Space, and Thales Alenia Space, French government and industry officials said.

The contract for what has been called Comsat NG, or Next Generation, represents the stunning failure of France and its prospective partners — Britain, Italy and, to a lesser extent, Spain — to pool their demand for next-generation military bandwidth.

These four nations, plus Germany, all operate separate military telecommunications satellite systems. The European Defence Agency of Brussels, an arm of the 28-nation European Union, has estimated that joining forces in the procurement of next-generation capacity could save European taxpayers up to 2 billion euros ($2.5 billion).

European military officials have been saying for several months that the combination of national pride — the unwillingness to be dependent on anyone else for strategic military bandwidth — and satellite replacement schedules, coupled with financial issues among them, had scuttled attempts to join forces.

One French official said France had already waited longer than it wanted before moving forward with Comsat NG, maintaining until late 2014 the hope that at least some coordination could be achieved in the interest of savings.

“The problem we confronted was that the British Skynet 5 [military telecommunications satellite constellation] does not need to start procuring replacement capacity for another couple of years,” this official said. “In Italy, where France has had some success in joining forces for military satcom, there are budget issues that prevented Italian authorities from moving forward at this time. For our part, we could not wait any longer.”

The Luxembourg government is planning to launch its own military telecommunications satellite as well, in a joint venture with commercial satellite fleet operator SES.

The Comsat NG program, including the expected two-satellite contract with Airbus and/or Thales Alenia Space, plus the ground network and the launch of the two satellites, is expected to carry a total value of 800 million euros. But only around 60 million euros of this is expected to be committed in 2015 given the French Defense Ministry’s already-stretched finances.

French officials have said the first of the two Comsat NG satellites needed to be in orbit by 2021 to replace the two Syracuse 3 satellites whose retirement dates are expected to be around then.

In addition to exploring a bilateral or multilateral program, France had investigated outsourcing the Comsat NG program to the private sector, a scenario in which France would pay annual leases to the program prime contractor. Britain has done this with Skynet 5, Germany has opted for a diluted partnership with the private sector for its two-satellite system, and Italy has given the private sector part-ownership of a Sicral spacecraft in return for industry co-investment.

That do did not work in France, for reasons that were never made clear. French officials said they suspected that British authorities were paying too high an annual price to Airbus Defence and Space, which manages the Skynet 5 system, despite the fact that British defense officials publicly defended the procurement decision and expanded the Skynet 5 contract by purchasing an additional spacecraft.

More recently, the squeeze on the Italian and French defense budgets was viewed as an occasion to pool milsatcom resources. Italy and France have already launched a joint civil-military broadband satellite, Athena-Fidus, with separate payloads for each nation.

Similarly, the Sicral 2 satellite scheduled for launch aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket in mid-2015 carries French and Italian payloads, allowing each nation to preserve its autonomy while sharing satellite production and launch costs.

The French arms procurement agency, DGA, continues to struggle with how to pay for the hardware it needs to procure in 2015. A sale-and-leaseback scheme for certain programs is being attempted, but Comsat NG is not among them.

France has had almost as much difficulty finding partnerships in optical and radar reconnaissance satellites as well.

The inability to strike partnerships across borders is one reason why DGA chief Laurent Collet-Billon, when asked by the French parliament to assess the status of military space cooperation in Europe, answered: “Nowhere!”