PARIS — Four large commercial satellite fleet operators have hired former U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner to persuade the U.S. government to permit wider access to u.s. and Chinese rockets, the companies announced Sept. 16.
The four satellite operators — Intelsat, SES, Telesat and EchoStar — say the current global commercial-launch market has been reduced to “Russian and French companies.” They want the U.S. government to nudge United Launch Alliance (ULA), which manufactures the U.S. Delta and Atlas vehicles, to broaden production to appeal to the commercial market.
They are also calling for U.S. export reform to allow U.S. satellite parts to be exported for launch aboard China’s rockets. “[O]ne of the world’s most reliable launchers is manufactured in China and has effectively been treated as ‘off limits’ to U.S. satellite companies for more than a decade,” said the group, calling itself the Coalition for Competitive Launchers.
Warner, who now works at the Washington law firm Hogan & Hartson, said in an accompanying statement: “We call on the Defense Department, the State Department and other national security arms of our Executive Branch to take a new look at our country’s launch vehicle capabilities and relevant export control policies. Current U.S. policies can and should be reformed to encourage competition and diversification for satellite operators, consistent with U.S. national security considerations.”
Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver and Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of Seal Beach, Calif., maintain small commercial-launch divisions despite their focus, through their ULA joint venture, on U.S. government business for the Atlas and Delta rockets. Both companies have said the main barrier to their full re-entry into the commercial market has been the prevailing commercial-launch prices, which they say remain 10 percent to 20 percent below the minimum needed for the U.S. providers to make a profit.
Despite this, Warner says in his statement that the Coalition “seeks to increase launch-vehicle options that could ultimately lower costs for users of communications satellites.”
In a Sept. 16 interview, Warner said he was too new to the topic to be able to offer specific proposals on how to encourage Lockheed Martin and Boeing to enter a market both companies say offers insufficient profit. He said he would be meeting with both to try to find a solution.
A second impediment to the return of Atlas and Delta to the commercial market has been the lack of transparency and predictability in the U.S. government’s satellite-launch manifest. With no clear idea of when openings on the Atlas or Delta manifests will occur, and with their satellites susceptible — at least in theory — to being replaced at the last minute by higher-priority U.S. government satellites, commercial satellite operators for the most part have steered clear of U.S. launchers.
Warner said U.S. government officials in recent months have indicated they see a national interest in having U.S. rocket makers active in the commercial market as well as their more-profitable military and intelligence launch business.
Warner said it is no accident if rocket makers in China, India and Japan, whose main launch business is for their governments’ satellites, are attempting to make inroads in the commercial sector. He said the coalition is not trying to change legislation but rather to begin a public, long-term effort to persuade the U.S. government of the value of a viable commercial-launch industry.
Warner said his specific role in the coalition will be to talk with the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama about the issues involved. He noted that ethics rules forbid former members of the U.S. Congress from directly lobbying on Capitol Hill, and that he will not be involved in that part of the effort.
The two principal commercial-launch companies, Arianespace of Evry, France, which sells the heavy-lift Ariane 5 and Russia’s Soyuz medium-lift rocket for commercial payloads; and International Launch Services (ILS) of Reston, Va. — which markets the Russian Proton heavy-lift vehicle — issued statements Sept. 16 questioning the validity of the coalition’s core argument.
“Launch services providers, satellite manufacturers and industry consultants unanimously [forecast] that demand for new satellites [will] level off to around 20 payloads a year,” Arianespace Chief Executive Jean-Yves Le Gall said in a statement.
He said orders for new satellites so far this year total just 16, while today’s commercially available rockets have an annual launch capacity of 25 or more satellites per year into geostationary-transfer orbit, the destination of most commercial satellites. “Even if one of these launchers experiences an anomaly, these are mature launch systems with proven designs that have the ability to be back in flight in a matter of weeks, not years,” he said. “The launch market is at a rational and safe level of supply.”
ILS President Frank McKenna, who has been warning for over a year that the annual commercial-launch rate would decline from current levels as part of a cyclical downturn, said: “Existing commercial launch capacity … is more than sufficient to meet the demand in the commercial market. The rationalization of the commercial launch market that has occurred was driven by economic forces and is now at a healthy and sustainable level of supply for the first time in more than a decade. Considering this fact, we do not understand the rationale behind forming a U.S. lobbying effort to try to create more commercial launch supply from China.”