ROME, PARIS and LONDON — A military communications satellite to be launched by Italy and France in 2014 is proving itself a rare example of a harmonious partnership between Rome and Paris, just as France and the U.K. eye future cooperation in space.
Following a series of less than satisfactory team-ups, the Italo-French Sicral 2 satellite is shaping up to be an example of how European partnerships can promote industrial synergies and save much-needed cash.
Mostly assembled in Italy but based on a French platform design, Sicral 2 will have separate capacity for French and Italian communication needs. It will serve as a successor to the Italian Sicral IB satellite while bolstering the French Syracuse satellite network.
“Other countries have shared capacity on satellites, but I don’t know of any other two governments which have signed an MoU [memorandum of understanding] to build a satellite together,” said Stefano Molinari, senior vice president for Satellite and Payload at Thales Alenia Space.
The satellite was conceived — not coincidentally, according to company officials — in parallel with talks to create Thales Alenia Space, formerly Alcatel Alenia Space, in 2005. This company groups the space activities of France’s Thales and Italy’s Finmeccanica under one roof, with Thales taking the majority stake of 67 percent.
The two companies also group their satellite services operations as Telespazio, which is 67 percent controlled by Finmeccanica.
Italy launched its Sicral 1 and Sicral 1B satellites in 2001 and 2009 to achieve autonomous satellite communications capability in theaters such as Afghanistan, but also to provide a share of NATO’s capacity. But with Sicral 1 due out of service — even if its fuel load will provide another couple of years aloft — a new launch was needed.
For Paris, Sicral 2 will be an integral part of its Syracuse III global military telecommunications satellite network, a Direction Générale de l’Armement (DGA) procurement official said.
“Cooperation with Italy on Sicral 2 allows an optimization of the requirements of the two countries’ armed forces,” the DGA official said.
The Syracuse III system, which comprises the Syracuse 3A, 3B and Sicral 2 satellites, replaces the Syracuse II network. The last satellite in the Syracuse II system was due to end its service life in 2012.
In Italy, the satellite’s operation will be controlled by the Italian military from Vigna di Valle. But transmissions will be controlled by each country individually: in Italy from Vigna di Valle, where transmissions from the other Sicral satellites are handled, and in France’s case from Maison Lafitte, in the outskirts of Paris, where Syracuse transmissions are controlled.
In a further sign of cooperation, the Italian Defense Ministry handled the original 300 million euro ($388 million) contract for Sicral 2 on behalf of Italy and France.
Work on the ultra high frequency (UHF) payload was undertaken by Thales Alenia Space in Italy, while the super high frequency (SHF) transponders of Italy and France were handled in their respective countries. Because it can be secured more effectively, extremely high frequency (EHF) will be used to control the satellite.
Officials said improvements to the digital processing of information mean that Sicral 2 will have greater flexibility in handling transmissions and be able to handle more traffic than its Sicral predecessors.
Sicral 2 follows conflict-ridden partnerships between Rome and Paris on torpedoes, naval frigates and UAVs, with Italian hackles raised by the Anglo-French defense cooperation deal in 2010.
“On Sicral 2, work started with MoUs signed at government and industrial level,” Molinari said. “Integrated Italo-French engineering teams worked together from the start. And you cannot change the specifications of a satellite.”
“What also helped was having just one firm, Thales Alenia Space, working on it,” said Franco Saverio Rubertone, Sicral 2 Italy program director at the company.
Rubertone said the payload would be integrated with the platform in Turin in September before being moved to Cannes in November for vibration, heat and acoustic testing. The package will then be shipped to the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana for launch around September 2014.
A portion of UHF and SHF capacity will be rented to NATO, with individual bilateral deals for capacity also signed by other nations.
About 50 percent of UHF capacity on Sicral 1 and 1B were used by NATO, and the same capacity could be taken on Sicral 2, company sources said. NATO’s use of SHF capacity on Sicral 2 could be around 10 percent.
“Since SHF is directional, NATO’s use would depend on operational needs,” one source said.
While Sicral 2 is being developed, France and Italy have been working on another satellite, Athena Fidus, which should be launched ahead of Sicral 2 in early 2014. Roles are reversed on the program, with France handling the ground-based operation of the satellite.
The satellite will offer the EHF band for military use and the KA band for civil use, with the national space agencies of France and Italy acting as prime contractors.
France is meanwhile looking at other options for capacity. Last September, the DGA awarded space technology company Astrium a contract to look at options for a system capable of operating across several frequency bands.
One of those options could be collaboration with the U.K. Discussions have been underway about a possible tie-up with the British on the back of the Anglo-French defense treaty of 2010, which promised military, nuclear and industrial cooperation.
In the U.K., the government’s Defence Strategy Group last November recommended that Britain maintain a sovereign capability for its next generation of military satellite communications, and advised that no commitments should be made to a collaborative program too early in the U.K.’s procurement cycle.
With no ministerial decision yet required, a statement of intent is being drawn up to allow the U.K. and France to continue developing independent national programs while keeping each other informed of their programs in case backup is needed.
A U.K. defense source said a collaborative decision will not be made before 2016, when a ministerial decision will be required, although communication channels remain open.