The six nations participating in the two-satellite Helios 2 optical and infrared reconnaissance satellite system have agreed to supply some imagery free of charge to the 25-nation European Union (EU), but EU authorities will have to pay if they want more than a limited amount of data, according to European government officials.

Officials said that despite the limited nature of the agreement, securing the necessary political approval will take months, if not longer.

For example, they noted , an agreement on sharing Helios 1 imagery with the European Union Satellite Center in Torrejon, Spain, was reached in late 2003. But the final political-level authorization to put the agreement into force has not been given. As a result, the satellite center has been forced to rely on commercial and Helios 1 imagery purchased with its relatively small budget.

“The best we can hope for concerning a Helios 2 agreement is a general accord at the end of 2005,” said one French military official. “It will take until late 2006 before we get final signatures implementing the agreement.”

The first Helios 1 satellite was launched in 1995 and remains healthy, according to French military officials. A second satellite, launched in 1999, failed in October 2004.

The Helios 2A satellite — featuring sharper imagery and an infrared capability for nighttime imaging — was launched in December and began operations April 5. Financed mainly by France, the system now includes the participation of Belgium, Spain and Germany, with Italy about to join the program. Greece also has agreed to pay for a small stake in Helios starting in 2009.

In a series of presentations here April 25-27 during the “Military Space: Questions in Europe” conference organized by the French Aeronautical and Astronautic Federation , government officials said EU red tape and individual nations’ national pride continue to pose barriers to cooperative efforts in military space programs.

To these difficulties are added the complexity of providing different levels of access by different nations to a military satellite system.

Marc Pennamen, a deputy Helios program officer at the French Joint Military Staff, said the current Helios 2 partnership of six nations is probably the maximum given the logistics of creating secure access networks, or keys, that permit the participants to have access to the satellite. Each nation reserves the right to task Helios 2 without letting the other nations know what region is being imaged.

Pennamen said the EU’s access will be more restricted. A certain number of images per year — and only of areas outside the European Union — will be given free of charge to EU authorities. “After that amount, they have to pay,” Pennamen said. Payment terms are still being worked out. EU officials will not be given the right to uplink assignments directly to the satellite.

Officials said the different military observation satellite systems now being planned — 13 in all, including radar and optical reconnaissance satellites being built in France, Germany and Italy — have led to a ground network that is being stitched together as an afterthought.

One Italian government official said the sponsoring governments agreed in recent years to coordinate ground-segment development to permit defense forces in all participating nations to have easy access to the orbital assets.

But this has not been done. “We are still at the point of wishful thinking ,” this official said. “I suppose this is in part because there are vested interests involved. Each nation’s industry wants to sell its ground installations to the other nation. The only thing we can hope for is that the next generation of systems is thought out more clearly from the beginning.”

Francois Bujon de l’Estaing, president of Citigroup France and a former French ambassador to the United States, said European nations have spent too much time dithering over how to integrate space into their military strategy.

The slapdash way that the supposedly integrated ground infrastructure is being assembled for observation satellites is only the latest example. Bujon de l’Estaing headed a group assigned by the French Defense Ministry to assess future military space strategy. The group’s conclusions remain classified, but some of them were made clear in remarks he made during the conference.

“In Europe we do not have a system of systems approach, or even a complementary architecture, even after 20 years of using the technology,” Bujon de l’Estaing said, referring to the launch of the first French Spot civilian observation satellite in 1986.

Bujon de l’Estaing said that when he left his post in Washington as French ambassador in 2002 and returned to Europe, “I was amazed that the debate [over military space] in Europe is very different. I have a word of warning: Time is of the essence. Many countries are in the process of conducting a [military] space revolution. Decision time is now if we do not want to see serious gaps appearing with the United States. If and when the gaps become visible, it will be too late to bridge them.”

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