PARIS — The French Defense Ministry has been unable to persuade its European partners to develop a joint missile-warning satellite system despite years of quiet lobbying, French government and industry officials said.
While they said they would continue their efforts, French officials now are resigned to the fact that they might have to go it alone to pursue what they say is the strategic national priority of being able to detect the source of ballistic missile launches in at least some regions of the world, and to monitor their trajectory.
“It must be said that our European partners have not been overly enthusiastic about this,” said Patrick Auroy, deputy director for technology, industry and cooperation strategy at the French arms procurement agency, DGA. “The will to cooperate remains, but it’s not cooperation if you end up talking only to yourself. Up to now, we have heard no one say they are willing to invest with us. I can only regret we have not succeeded. That is why we are now moving toward a national system.”
France had hoped its decision to spend some 125 million euros ($168 million) on two small Spirale missile-detection demonstrator satellites, now scheduled for launch in February, would stimulate interest in an operational missile defense system among other European nations. But while tactical missile defense has long been a topic of interest among NATO nations, strategic missile defense, which would require a satellite detector as well as ground radars has not caught on inEurope.
During an Oct. 23 conference here on missile defense systems organized by the French think tank Cercles de Brienne, Auroy said several European nations, including Britain, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, have formed a group to take a fresh look at missile alert systems.
There currently is no follow-on missile-alert program planned after Spirale, but French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said space-based defense systems are one of his high priorities. In November, the French National Assembly, or parliament, will review a multiyear spending program that will be a test of whether Sarkozy’s priorities are translated into funded programs.
French officials said they are not considering the kind of multibillion-dollar missile defense system being built by the
United States, which in any event is unaffordable in. Instead, they propose to develop, starting early in the next decade, an operational missile-alert system that would include one, or possibly two, geostationary-orbiting satellites and a ground radar with a 3,000-kilometer range for tracking missiles whose launch is detected by the satellites.
“A missile-alert system of this kind will give us autonomy in our decision making,” Auroy said. “It will enable us to determine on our own how serious a threat is.”
The refusal of other nations in Europe to consider a joint missile-alert system has been a source of frustration among French government and industry officials, especially since the reorganization of Europe‘s aerospace industry that has created transnational companies. These companies – Astrium of France, Germany, Britain and Spain; and Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy are the biggest and are well-versed in spreading contracts across borders for programs financed by multiple governments.
One French industry official who has devoted a substantial amount of time in a fruitless effort to elicit missile-alert support outside of France referred bitterly to “the reptilian brains and here I may be giving them too much credit of our partners in Europe. In these brains, missile defense is a no-go. So it won’t be easy” getting support beyond France, this official said.
Reynald Seznec, chief executive of Thales Alenia Space, said an operational missile-alert system to follow Spirale could be developed well before 2020 for a total budget of less than 1 billion euros, including the satellites’ launch and ground infrastructure.
Seznec said technology hurdles on the development of certain missile-detection infrared sensors could be started now, with full-scale development in 2013.
Francois Auque, chief executive of Astrium, said some nations in view missile defense as a natural French competence and thus shy away from it. “There is a tendency not to enter into cooperative ventures when you fear your partner will be dominant,” Auque said.
Alain Bories, director of OHB-France, a division of Bremen, Germany-based satellite-builder OHB Technology, urged French officials to continue to engage their German counterparts in missile-alert discussions, saying the German government has begun its own debate on how to proceed.
“Like France, Germany wants a system in place around 2019-2020,” Bories said.
French air force Gen. Jean-Marc Denuel, deputy director of planning at France‘s Joint Defense Staff, said an operational missile-alert satellite system and associated ground radar tentatively are planned for around the middle of the next decade, but that they are competing for budget attention with numerous other programs.