What European Union institutions hope to achieve in sharing military satellite communications in the distant future, France and Italy are doing right now: Joint development, construction and launch of a common milsatcom architecture, a two-satellite system that is already saving both nations money, while paving the way for broader European cooperation down the road.

Such collaboration has been an ostensible goal among European governments for many years. But despite the clear financial advantages of sharing space-based assets, five European governments—Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain—have maintained separate, independent military communications satellite infrastructures.

That changed Feb. 3, however, with the launch of the Franco-Italian Athena-Fidus military broadband satellite atop an Ariane 5 ECA rocket from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana. With plans to orbit a second jointly developed satellite this year—the UHF and X-band military Sicral 2—the bilateral milsatcom initiative represents a high-water mark for European space.

For both spacecraft, each government is maintaining its own payload, to be operated independently of the other nation's. But by sharing a Thales Alenia Space Spacebus 4000 platform and pooling Ariane 5 launch costs, they are potentially saving hundreds of millions over what it would cost to pursue independent Ka-band broadband and protected military satellite communications systems on their own.

Co-financed by France at 51% and Italy at 49% for a combined €280 million ($380.5 million), Athena-Fidus was built with funding from French defense procurement agency DGA and French space agency CNES, Italy's defense ministry, and the Italian space agency ASI. Sicral 2 is expected to run up a comparable tab, but with Italy taking the development lead.

As both countries seek to replace or increase military satellite communications capacity, the savings are all the more significant given that France and Italy—along with Britain—are under contract to provide military communications capacity to NATO through national satellite assets.

Despite operating separate payloads on Athena-Fidus and Sicral 2, the two governments will need to coordinate closely on their use, which could gradually set the stage for a broader European military space cooperation.

The distance France and Italy have come relative to other European defense powers can be measured by the language used during a December meeting of the European Council in Brussels. The two-day summit—the first the European governments have held on defense in five years—proposed pooling and sharing military satellite resources through the EU's European Defence Agency (EDA), which in 2012 launched the European Satellite Communications Procurement Cell (ESCPC) to combine commercial satellite capacity in response to shared demand among member states.

In a Dec. 20 communique, the Council said it welcomed “preparations for the next generation of governmental satellite communications” through close cooperation among the EU's 28 members, its check-writing body, the European Commission, and the European Space Agency. It also urged that a satcom users group be set up this year.

But while the effort could mark the beginning of a European-wide satellite communications effort in the future, the project is extremely small. To date, only five nations—Britain, France, Italy, Poland and Romania—participate in the framework contract that the EDA concluded with the former EADS-Astrium Services in 2012 to share demand for commercial military bands.

In the meantime, all five European nations that operate military satellite communication assets need to replace them in the 2018-25 time frame, a situation EDA sees as an opportunity for pooling and sharing military communications platforms under its Secure Telecom by Satellite concept for Europe-wide use of government satellite communications.

But bilateral negotiations among governments on what to do for next-generation milsatcom systems have not borne fruit, and none of the programs are on the same schedule. With France's current Syracuse 3 system coming up for retirement earlier than Italy's two existing Sicral satellites, Britain's Skynet 5 system and Germany's two-satellite Satcom BW, the French may be forced to make a decision independent of the others within the year if they are to achieve their target of having a new system in service by 2018-19.

“We understand how imperative it is to prepare the next satellite generation,” EDA Chief Executive Claude-France Arnould told a European Union space policy summit in Brussels Jan. 28-29. “The deadline is 2016-18 to draw up that project, for which we need the economic and business model for solutions to pooling military and civil satcom capabilities.”