Italian Military Buys $100M Spy Satellite from Israel in Exchange Deal

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PARIS — The Italian Defense Ministry is buying a high-resolution optical reconnaissance satellite from Israel as part of an offset package agreed to in exchange for the Israeli Defense Ministry’s purchase of Italian trainer aircraft, according to industry officials.

The satellite transaction, which officials said is valued at more than $100 million, is the latest example of the fragility of agreements between Italy, France and Germany on a de facto division of expertise, with France taking charge of optical systems and Italy and Germany sticking with radar reconnaissance.

The decision appears to run counter to the Italian Space Agency’s planned OPSys, or Optical Payload System, work to develop an Italian-made optical reconnaissance satellite for Italian defense authorities.

“France has already expressed its view that OPSys is a kind of provocation, the same as Hi-Ros is,” said one industry official, referring to a German government program to build a high-resolution optical satellite. Hi-Ros does not appear to have moved forward in recent months.

Germany and Italy both have launched radar satellite constellations. Germany’s SAR-Lupe satellites are reserved for military use, while Italy’s four-satellite Cosmo-SkyMed has military, commercial and civil missions.

The French government has signed separate agreements with Italy and Germany promising to provide French Helios and Pleiades optical reconnaissance imagery in exchange for access to radar data.

In keeping with an unstated European practice that has led to separate satellite reconnaissance systems being built in France, Germany, Italy and Spain, the imagery covered by the French-Italian and French-German agreements is not shared, it is exchanged.

Under an agreement announced in February, the Israeli air force agreed to purchase an undetermined number of M-346 trainer aircraft built by Alenia Aermacchi.

The satellite to be purchased by Italy as part of the contract’s offset package would have a ground sampling distance sharper than 1 meter. Its performance could approach that of Israel’s Ofeq 9 optical reconnaissance satellite, which was launched in 2009.

The satellite would use the IMPS 2 platform built by Israel Aerospace Industries, Israel’s principal satellite builder.

The Israeli satellite company’s distinguishing characteristic, both in its radar and optical reconnaissance satellite systems, is its ability to pack high performance into a small package. The Ofeq optical and TecSAR radar satellites weigh around 300 kilograms at launch — small enough to be carried into low Earth orbit by Europe’s new Vega rocket, whose development has been led by Italy.

Israel has delivered a radar satellite to the Indian government in exchange for a launch aboard India’s PSLV rocket. The launch, which occurred in 2009, carried an Israeli TecSAR and India’s Risat 2 satellite into low Earth orbit. Risat 2 is based on Israeli technology.

The French-Italian agreement on reconnaissance satellite data exchange, called Optical and Radar Federated Earth Observation (ORFEO), was concluded in January 2001. At the time, Italian officials thought their Cosmo-SkyMed constellation would satisfy more of their demand for imagery than has turned out to be the case. The agreement grants Italian authorities seven images from France’s Helios or Pleiades optical systems in exchange for 75 Cosmo-SkyMed radar images, according to officials familiar with the agreement.

The ORFEO accords were signed more than six years before the Cosmo-SkyMed constellation was launched, and a decade before the French Pleiades system — two satellites with 70-centimeter ground resolution — was put into service. The first Pleiades satellite was launched in December. The second is scheduled for launch in early 2013.

Industrial space cooperation between the two nations, including cooperation on military space systems, is relatively straightforward given the existence of Thales Alenia Space, a French-Italian company with production facilities in both countries.

Thales Alenia Space provides the optical sensors for French reconnaissance satellites and has perhaps more to lose or gain with the ebb and flow of French-Italian military space collaboration than any other company.

Italy and France have already gone further than any other two nations in collaborating on military space systems. The two nations’ defense ministries will have separate telecommunications payloads on the Sicral 2 satellite, which is under construction by Thales Alenia Space and is scheduled for launch in 2014.

French and Italian military and civil space authorities are also sharing the cost of the Athena-Fidus broadband satellite, which will carry an extremely high frequency/Ka-band payload for Italy and a Ka-band payload for France and is also scheduled for launch in 2014.

In a June 26 briefing with reporters, Thales Alenia Space officials said French-Italian military space cooperation can point to more concrete successes than similar efforts between France and Britain, and France and Germany.

Italy and France are the only two nations that have invested in what was supposed to be a common ground infrastructure for all European reconnaissance satellites, called Musis, or Multinational Space-based Imaging System for Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Observation.

Musis has struggled for traction. It is now being run by the 12-nation Organization for Joint Armament Cooperation, headquartered in Bonn, Germany.

Despite the progress, Thales Alenia Space officials said Italy has been frustrated by the limited amount of optical imagery it receives under ORFEO, especially since the NATO operation in Libya. That campaign, the officials said, highlighted the need for optical imagery alongside radar sensors.

France and Italy are both working on next-generation reconnaissance systems, the Optical Space Component in France and a second-generation Cosmo-SkyMed system in Italy that apparently will start out with only two satellites.