Italy Adding EHF Payload to Athena-Fidus Ka-band Sat

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Italian defense authorities will place an EHF payload onto the Athena-Fidus satellite being built with France and whose main mission will be providing low-encryption Ka-band broadband links to Italian and French defense and homeland security forces, Italian defense officials said.

Athena-Fidus, which is scheduled for launch in 2013, will carry separate French and Italian Ka-band payloads, in keeping with the bilateral cooperation arrangement between the two nations that includes a Sicral 2 telecommunications satellite. Sicral 2, with separate French and Italian communications payloads, is also scheduled for launch in 2013 to replace the aging Sicral 1 satellite.

Sicral 2 will also be used by the NATO alliance under a contract NATO signed to use British and French satellite telecommunications capacity in addition to Italy’s.

Giovanni Battista Durando, chief of land and satellite communication networks at Italy’s joint defense directorate, said Sicral 1, launched in 2001 and scheduled for retirement in late 2010, has enough fuel to continue operations until the arrival of Sicral 2 in 2013.

Sicral 1 has lost part of its capacity, obliging Italy and NATO to rely more heavily than expected on the Sicral 1B satellite launched in 2009. The contract with Thales Alenia Space for the construction of Sicral 2 was not signed until April of this year, although some work had begun before the contract signing.

Italy is responsible for managing Sicral 2’s UHF and the Italian SHF channels. A separate French mission control center is in charge of Sicral 2’s French SHF-band payload.

Sicral 2’s arrival “is good news for NATO, and we are only sorry we cannot get it into orbit any earlier,” Durando said Nov. 8 during the Global Milsatcom conference in London, organized by SMi Group. Presenting with Durando was Tommaso Guastamacchia, general manager of VI Department, formerly the directorate of telecommunications and advanced technologies, at the Italian Defense Ministry.

With Sicral 2 in orbit, and assuming the continued health of Sicral 1B, Italy will not need to replace its military satellite telecommunications capacity before 2020 or 2022, Durando said. But the Italian Defense Ministry is nonetheless backing proposals that the Italian Space Agency invest in Ka-band capacity beyond Athena-Fidus.

What remains unclear is whether Italian defense authorities are willing to outsource the next-generation system to industry or will revert to conventional hardware procurement. Italian authorities agreed to give over a small share of Sicral 1B capacity for commercial sales by Telespazio of Rome in return for industrial participation in Sicral 1B financing at a time of stressed government budgets.

“The problem is to define the value of the infrastructure, and we will study that,” Durando said, referring to the idea that Italian authorities would sell the Sicral satellites to the private sector, and then lease capacity from it.

“The government wants to maintain its knowledge base,” Durando said. “That means people. We don’t want to give away all those years of experience.” Another issue, he said, is the fact that the two orbiting Sicral satellites are fully used by Italian and NATO authorities, except for a small portion, leaving little commercial space for a private-sector operator.

“We don’t believe any industrial partner can change much in the way we manage the capacity,” he said.