Thales Alenia Chief Sees Renewed Competition from U.S. Firms

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PARIS — Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy reported 2.2 billion euros ($2.9 billion) in revenue in 2012, a 10 percent increase from the previous year thanks to work on the 81-satellite Iridium mobile communications project and on Europe’s ExoMars mission, Thales Alenia Space Chief Executive Jean-Loic Galle said.

The company also booked one of its largest-ever contracts, the six-satellite Meteosat Third Generation (MTG) program, which is valued at about 1.4 billion euros and is being built with OHB AG of Germany for the European Space Agency and Europe’s Eumetsat meteorological satellite agency.

In remarks here Jan. 15 to a conference organized by Euroconsult, Galle said work on the Iridium and O3b constellations — in low and medium Earth orbit, respectively — combined with a reasonable share of a global geostationary-orbiting telecommunications satellite market averaging 20 satellites per year should keep the company’s telecommunications business stable for the next three years.

Launch of the Iridium constellation is scheduled to start in 2015. Thales Alenia Space is also prime contractor for the O3b Networks Ka-band broadband satellites. Twelve O3b satellites have been ordered so far, with the first eight scheduled for launch in 2013. O3b officials have said they intend to expand the constellation to perhaps several dozen satellites once the business model is proved with the first spacecraft.

Thales Alenia Space’s smaller Earth observation division will be growing by 5 percent per year through 2015, Galle said. He did not detail the components of this growth. In addition to its MTG meteorological satellite work, the company provides optical sensors for the French government’s surveillance satellites and, through its Italian arm, radar satellites for the Italian government.

Italy is expected to order two second-generation Cosmo-SkyMed satellites in the coming months. The contract has been delayed as the Italian government wrestles with a budget crisis that has put some planned space investments on hold.

Galle said he expected that the recent relaxation of technology-export rules signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama would make it easier for U.S. satellite builders — he cited Boeing Space and Intelligence of El Segundo, Calif., and Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif. — and thus increase the competitive pressure on European manufacturers.

“We see a much bigger competitive threat coming from the United States,” Galle said. Boeing in particular, he said, is “using experience gained with military platforms to offer a commercial product that is extremely competitive both in performance and in price.”

Galle said the three main European satellite prime contractors — Astrium Satellites, OHB and Thales Alenia Space — should consider how to work together on common technologies and perhaps common satellite platforms to save cost and sharpen their competitive edge.

European governments, he said, should not focus solely on maintaining competition among the European contractors when issuing solicitations. “I am not sure having a severe competition between Astrium and Thales Alenia Space is necessarily a good idea,” he said. “The real competition is not here in Europe. It is from the United States, and longer term from China, which is winning business where the satellite is paid for in barter for raw materials. We would have problems competing with this.”