PARIS — French military forces “have no choice” but to move from a conventional procurement toward some kind of public-private partnership for France’s next-generation military satellite telecommunications system, the head of France’s arms procurement agency, DGA, said Feb. 13.
In a briefing on DGA’s budget priorities, DGA chief Laurent Collet-Billon said whatever the exact structure — with the private sector, with a partner such as Italy or Britain, or with a combination — it will need to preserve the viability of Europe’s two biggest satellite prime contractors.
“No one wants to see one of them damaged” by the choice of the other to build the satellite telecommunications infrastructure to succeed France’s Syracuse 3 satellites currently in orbit, Collet-Billon said.
In early 2012, then-French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet <a title=”France Dumps Plan To Privatize Its Military Telecom Satellites” href=”http://www.spacenews.com/article/france-dumps-plan-privatize-its-military-telecom-satellites#.USPzh_Lis88″>scrapped the idea of privatizing Syracuse 3</a> through a sale of the satellites to <span class=”removed_link” title=”http://dev.spacenews.com/profile/thales-alenia-space/”>Thales Alenia Space</span> of France and Italy or Astrium of France, Germany and Britain.
Longuet said privatization, which is the route Britain has taken with its Skynet 5 military communications satellite network, takes too much control away from the military forces that use the infrastructure by forcing the military to consult with the satellites’ private-sector owners.
The new French government that entered office in May and June has not announced its policy, but Collet-Billon made clear that France’s defense budget prospects make it all but certain that a straightforward purchase of telecommunications satellites has been discarded.
DGA’s space spending, much of which is directed through the French space agency, CNES, has been declining in recent years and there are no programs on the horizon except the next-generation optical reconnaissance system to follow the Helios 2 optical and infrared satellites now in orbit.
The previous French government had said it wanted to use DGA’s experience in electronics intelligence satellite demonstrators — DGA has funded several such satellites, and all have performed at or above their specifications as research and development tests — to build an operational system called Ceres.
Whether Ceres will remain a priority for the new government will not be known until this spring, when a new defense white paper is published and a military program law translating the white paper’s direction into budget priorities is formulated.
In a document distributed here Feb. 13 during the DGA’s press briefing, the agency said substantial risk reduction was performed on Ceres designs in 2012 to permit the program to move forward. Earlier designs have concluded that Ceres would cost around 300 million euros ($400 million).
In 2012, DGA contributed 244 million euros to the CNES budget, according to DGA figures released Feb. 13.
Like their U.S. counterparts, French military planners are struggling to protect their existing procurement programs, making them less likely to approve new starts.
“Yes, the figure of 300 million euros has been used but the fact is that we don’t have much else in the pipeline if we don’t approve Ceres,” one French military official said of DGA’s space investment. “I am still hopeful that the new administration will make it a priority.”
DGA has signed two competing contracts with Thales Alenia Space and Astrium to investigate options for the next-generation military telecommunications satellite program. Both studies are scheduled to be completed this year.
Through DGA, France is pursuing separate discussions with Britain and Italy on a possible partnership in military satellite bandwidth. British officials are less concerned about an immediate decision because their Skynet 5 contract with Astrium Services runs through the end of the decade.
Collet-Billon said France will replace Syracuse 3 in 2017 or 2018. The NATO alliance is looking to partner with one or more of its member nations in a satcom effort around the same time. NATO currently purchases capacity under a long-term contract with France, Britain and Italy.
One DGA official said a key hurdle for France in any public-private partnership is the absence of a European law defining what such a partnership is.
“You have different notions in different countries, but if we were to do a program in cooperation with, say, Britain or Italy, we would need to adopt a common definition,” this official said. “You may recall it took us two years just to get around the problem, in France, arising from the fact that there was no precedent for DGA, or the French Defense Ministry, selling infrastructure to the private sector. That was one of the problems that killed Nectar.”
Nectar was the DGA name for a proposal to sell the Syracuse 3 satellites to a private-sector service provider and then lease back capacity.