France Starts Work on Eavesdropping Satellite Despite Funding Uncertainty

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PARIS — The French Defense Ministry has contracted with Airbus Defence and Space, and Thales for initial work on France’s first operational eavesdropping satellite even as it struggles to align military space program goals with a 2015 budget that has not been fully secured, French government and industry officials said.

Under a contract valued at about 325 million euros ($406 million), France’s arms procurement agency, DGA, expects Airbus and Thales to begin work on the CERES electronics-intercept program in March, with the three satellites to be launched into low Earth orbit in 2020.

The entire CERES budget is estimated at about 460 million euros including the ground segment and the first two years of operations, which will be handled by the Airbus-Thales team.

The problem for DGA is that it wants CERES work to start at the same time as it plans to select a builder for France’s next-generation military telecommunications satellite program, tentatively called Comsat NG, which would succeed the Syracuse 3 satellites now in orbit around 2021.

French defense officials have said the need to replace the current Syracuse 3 satellites is too urgent to wait for an agreement with Britain or Italy on cost-sharing for a next-generation satellite telecommunications infrastructure.

French defense officials have tentatively budgeted 800 million euros for Comsat NG, with an initial payment of 60 million euros expected in 2015 once France decides who will build the system. Airbus and Thales Alenia Space are both candidate prime contractors. A British collaboration would have favored Airbus, which has large satellite manufacturing installations in Britain. A French-Italian agreement would favor Thales Alenia Space, a Franco-Italian company.

Airbus and Thales Alenia Space are sharing responsibility for France’s next-generation optical reconnaissance satellite program, which the French Defense Ministry continues to refer to as MUSIS — for MUltinational Space-based Imaging System for Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Observation — despite the absence of any real pan-European agreement on the system.

DGA chief Laurent Collet-Billon, well known for his no-sugarcoating speaking style, told the French Senate that France is about ready to abandon hope of bringing Germany into the program, which would permit the construction of a third optical reconnaissance satellite.

“Where are we with European cooperation? Nowhere,” Collet-Billon said in testimony on the 2015 budget released by the Senate the week of Nov. 24. “We’re still discussing with Germany the construction of a third satellite, but for them the issue is the industrial return for their industry. They’ve discussed a satellite that would be fully built by OHB [based in Bremen, Germany]. The longer we wait, the less relevant the issue becomes because technology evolves.”

Collet-Billon said the Italian contribution to MUSIS so far — like Germany, Italy has its own constellation of radar reconnaissance satellites and is interested in an optical system — “is minimal.” He said Belgium has said it may be willing to invest 50 million euros in the French system, but only if Belgian industry benefits accordingly.

The MUSIS system is already under contract to Airbus and Thales Alenia Space, a deal valued at 795 million euros, and is thus more protected than CERES from any budget problems as DGA tries to implement its program.

Key to the successful start of CERES is whether the French Defense Ministry will generate sufficient revenue, in 2015, from the sale of real estate assets and of its license to use radio spectrum in the 700 megahertz frequency band.

These one-time revenue sources make up a large percentage of the total military space capital outlays scheduled for 2015.

French army Gen. Pierre de Villiers, who is chief of the French Joint Defense Staff, told the Senate hearing that the satellite telecommunications system must not be delayed. The satellites must be ordered in 2015, he said.

French military space spending over the years has averaged around 450 million euros. But the actual funding since 2011 has been less than 200 million euros. CERES and other planned programs, including Comsat NG, have been delayed.

Collet-Billon said CERES is nonetheless fully embedded in French military strategy, which has included the launch of several demonstrator eavesdropping satellites to test the relevant technologies.

Different French military and intelligence services have different priorities with respect to the radio frequencies CERES should listen to, Collet-Billon said. But all are agreed that the mission is important.

“With MUSIS and CERES, we will have both the picture and the sound, so to speak,” Collet-Billon said. “Our priority now is to figure out what we’re going to do on our drones. We’re studying how to put this sound-and-picture capability on the Reaper.”

France has purchased Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles from General Atomics of San Diego, while waiting for a European consortium to field its own vehicles.

The CERES system will be built by Airbus Defence and Space; Thales Airborne Systems; and Thales Alenia Space.