Team France prepares satellite and launch export battles for 2016

by

PARIS—The French space agency, CNES, on Feb. 5 concluded its annual internal seminar on international outreach, a meeting that is as much an order of battle on behalf of France’s space industry as a review of future bilateral space-research partnerships.

The U.S. dollar’s current strength against the euro and the temporary sidelining of the U.S. Export-Import Bank are likely to facilitate Team France’s efforts to win government Earth observation satellites and government or private-sector telecommunications satellite contracts.

Nary a week passes without CNES President Jean-Yves Le Gall touching down in some improbable capital and returning to Paris with what often appear to be insignificant memoranda of understanding, or vague framework agreements that may go nowhere.

But sometimes they lead to satellite contracts.

CNES on the civil side and the French Defense Ministry – led by an unusually active Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian – on the military side constitute the sharp end of the French space-diplomacy spear.

French President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls have been more than willing to provide the diplomatic polish.

In 2015 alone, one or the other of them was present to witness space cooperation deals signed with 11 nations: China, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Mexico, Morocco, Poland and Singapore.

Some of these nations – Kazakhstan, South Korea and Morocco — already have purchased French satellites, often accompanied by launch contracts with the Arianespace launch consortium of Evry, France. Others, such as Mexico and Poland, are weighing Earth observation satellite programs.

Peru was not on the 2015 list but PeruSat-1, built by Airbus Defence and Space, is scheduled for launch aboard a European Vega rocket this spring. The satellite contract followed substantial involvement of the French government, and particularly Le Drian.

Egypt is not on the list either, as it has been Le Drian that has had charge of the Egyptian customer, which in 2015 purchased French Rafale jet fighters and a multi-mission frigate and in 2016 has its sights set on a high-resolution optical reconnaissance satellite and a civil/military telecommunications spacecraft.

With the U.S. Export-Import Bank temporarily out of service for satellite deals – the bank awaits U.S. congressional confirmation of a proposed Ex-Im Bank director, needed to approve big-ticket loans such as satellites and launch services – France’s Coface is in a stronger position to clinch deals with low-interest financing.

For telecommunications satellites, the competition is mainly from the United States or China, with Japan making efforts as well.

In Earth observation satellites, Airbus Defence and Space is in a dominant export position, with Thales Alenia Space also retooling for more export business. They are increasingly battling each other for export work in addition to facing off against Israeli and South Korean competitors.

Airbus in the past has bundled a launch-service agreement into its Earth observation satellite offer. Such was the case with PeruSat-1.

Telecommunications satellite launch contracts often follow a duel between Europe’s Arianespace and SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, for small- and midsize satellites, and Arianespace versus International Launch Services’ Russian Proton rocket for heavier spacecraft.

U.S. technology-transfer restrictions keep China largely out of the commercial launch market except in those cases where China has sold Chinese satellite and Chinese Long March rocket launch as part of a package.

The increased diplomatic pace follows the remarkable growth in the number of nations with their own telecommunications or Earth observation satellites.

“CNES is paying special attention to the evolving global space landscape and the arrival of new actors on the international scene who are attracted by what space can do to support public policies,” CNES said in a Feb. 5 statement.

“This facilitates closer ties and cooperation agreements with these new partners as [CNES] accompanies them in their development, helping engender a “France reflex” when it comes to industrial partnerships for ambitious projects,” CNES said.

A telecommunications satellite for Brazil and high-resolution optical Earth observation satellites for the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Turkey, Kazakhstan and others are among the contracts following government cooperation agreements.