KOUROU, French Guiana — French military officials on Dec. 16 said the four-satellite electronic-intelligence (elint) system they plan to operate beginning in early 2012 will be the last of France’s in-orbit elint demonstration projects and will be succeeded by an operational system at the end of the decade.

In a briefing here the day before the launch of the four Elisa satellites, the officials said after 15 years and four different elint satellite demonstrator projects — all judged to have been successful — France is ready to proceed with an operational system with or without European partners.

Caroline Laurent, head of space and information systems at France’s arms procurement agency, DGA, said the Elisa system, which was scheduled for launch late Dec. 16 from Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport here, will identify ground-based radars and other telecommunications sources in higher frequencies than its predecessor, Essaim.

The four Essaim satellites were launched in 2004 and were operated, flying in close formation in low Earth orbit, for five years before being de-orbited in 2009. Essaim followed two one-satellite elint demonstrators, the Cerise and Clementine satellites, launched respectively in 1995 and 1999.

DGA has been occasionally criticized in French military ranks for being an expert at demonstration missions that do not usher in operational programs. In addition to the four elint missions in the past 15 years, DGA has also launched two Spirale satellites that tested missile warning technologies. Spirale, too, was a demonstrator that, to date, has no follow-on program.

DGA officials have acknowledged the criticism, and responded that France had hoped that by now one or more European partners would join in an elint or missile warning system.

That has not happened. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said since arriving in office in 2007 that he wanted Ceres to proceed as a fully operational elint program. Budget pressures have prevented that from happening on schedule.

Laurent said that Ceres design studies, which have already begun under a minimal budget, would accelerate in 2013 and that a contract for the construction of a three- or four-satellite Ceres system would begin in time for a launch by 2019. She said France is determined to build Ceres with or without partner nations joining the program.

French Air Force Gen. Yves Arnaud, who heads the French Joint Staff’s space office, said here that French expertise in optical satellite Earth observation gained from the Helios series of reconnaissance satellites since 1995 has given France a piece of an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance system. Elint, he said, is another piece.

The goal of the Ceres elint program, Arnaud said, is to provide French Rafale fighter jets with up-to-date maps of ground-to-air radars. These radars would be part of a catalog assembled by Ceres and then updated by both Ceres and Helios data.

“What we would like is to give our Rafale pilots a library of data on ground-to-air radars that would be assembled by Ceres and Helios,” Arnaud said. “Ceres and Helios would work together. Helios would identify the location of a radar, and Ceres would then fly over it to determine if it was still active, and to learn more about it. Similarly, if Ceres identifies a previously unknown source of radar emissions, optical reconnaissance will be able to tell us more about it.”

This kind of mapmaking capability depends on more than just satellites in any event, but the satellite component is indispensable, and cannot be provided by Elisa, Arnaud said.

The four-satellite Elisa program cost DGA about 115 million euros ($155 million). The Elisa system was built by a team led by Astrium Satellites and Thales Airborne Systems. The satellites, each weighing about 120 kilograms at launch, are using the Myriade platform, or skeletal structure, developed by the French space agency, CNES, and now commercialized by Astrium. Fifteen Myriade platforms have been built.

The Elisa constellation will operate in a polar low Earth orbit 694 kilometers in altitude. To save their limited fuel, the satellites will be slowly drifted to their final positions after launch and are expected to be operational by late March, Laurent said.


Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.