French defense authorities remain undecided about whether to order a third Syracuse 3 telecommunications satellite this year before their purchase option expires.

The decision, they said, will await further assessment of the kind of demand for satellite capacity that develops in Europe, especially now that two other systems — Britain’s Skynet 5 and the U.S.-Spanish Xtar system — appear to have X-band capacity to spare for some time to come. Leasing space aboard these satellites could be preferable to building another Syracuse 3 spacecraft, they said.

Syracuse 3A was launched in October 2005 and Syracuse 3B is scheduled for launch in August. Both were built by Alcatel Alenia Space, the French-Italian manufacturer whose Syracuse contract includes an option for a third model. That option expires in mid-2007.

“We still plan on deciding this year on a Syracuse 3C,” said Caroline Laurent, Syracuse 3 program manager at the French arms procurement agency, DGA. “But things need to be made clearer about demand uptake, and whether owning more capacity or leasing it is more intelligent.”

Alcatel Alenia Space is also prime contractor for Italy’s Sicral military telecommunications satellites. Sicral 1 was launched in 2001 and will need to be replaced in 2010. Sicral 1b, the same model as the first Sicral, is scheduled for launch in 2007.

Because the Sicral platform is relatively small and its service life limited to about 10 years, Italian defense authorities are weighing whether to launch it aboard an International Launch Services Proton M rocket, which would offer a longer life; or aboard a less-expensive Ariane 5 vehicle, which would mean accepting the 10-year lifetime.

Alcatel Alenia Space expects to build a Sicral 2 satellite — with a larger fuel tank and longer orbital life — to replace Sicral 1 around 2010.

Italy, France and Britain are sharing responsibility for providing satellite capacity to the NATO alliance.

The Skynet 5A satellite is scheduled for launch late this year aboard an Ariane 5 rocket, with Skynet 5B to follow in 2007 and Skynet 5C in 2008.

Xtar LLC, a joint venture between Loral Space and Communications of New York and the Spanish Hisdesat consortium, has launched two X-band satellites for allied government use and currently has plenty of spare capacity to lease beyond what has been set aside for the Spanish Defense Ministry.

The German Defense Ministry plans to launch two small satellites — using an Alcatel Alenia Space platform and an Astrium Satellites payload — as part of Germany’s Satcom Bw program. In addition to removing a customer from Syracuse 3, SatcomBw will add more dedicated military capacity over Europe.

With the number of military telecommunications satellites increasing, Laurent said DGA is hesitant to commit itself to a dual civil/military Ka-band broadband satellite program being investigated by the French and Italian space agencies.

This program, called Athena-Fidus, is designed to provide broadband links to rural areas in France and Italy, especially for government services but also for commercial use. A part of the capacity would be reserved for low-priority military telecommunications.

The satellite would not be radiation-hardened, nor would it be as protected against jamming and eavesdropping as are the Syracuse, Sicral and Skynet satellites, which were all built to NATO specifications.

“We certainly do not want to be the leader of this program,” Laurent said. “Whether we could take some of the Athena capacity — it’s far from certain. The idea of the program is to use relatively low-cost terminals, but we have seen in the past that these terminals are not accepted for military use. And once they are modified to meet military specifications, they are no longer cheap.”