With a looming cash shortfall and an aging military satellite communications system that needs to be replaced, France is casting a wide net for development options that include privatization of the constellation and joint development with Italy, the U.K. or both.

France's defense equipment agency, DGA, has ordered a pair of nine-month studies valued at €1.7 million ($2.2 million) each on future capabilities of military communications satellites, the results of which will inform defense program decisions as the administration of Francois Hollande updates the country's defense and security strategy in the coming months.

Led by France's two contractors, Astrium Services and Thales Alenia Space, the studies will be guided by a broad mandate to consider various system architectures, ownership schemes and whether ultimately a successor to France's Syracuse 3 system can be harmonized with future requirements to create a binational or trinational milsatcom constellation.

“The program emphasizes the desire to cooperate for this future solution with other European nations, like the U.K. in support of the 2010 Lancaster House Treaty, and Italy, which is a long-time partner in this domain,” the DGA says. “The reason for these studies is to be aware of all possible options, with nothing seen as taboo.”

In 2007, France, Italy and the U.K. collaborated in a joint bid to provide secure satcom capacity to NATO, which has access to Britain's Skynet 4 and Skynet 5 satellites, France's Syracuse 3 constellation and Italy's Sicral system.

But efforts to align military communications requirements among the partners have failed in the past, due largely to industrial policy and national security concerns. While most European governments recognize the savings that could be reaped through joint-system development and operations, today the U.K., France, Italy, Spain and Germany each have their own national milsatcom systems.

In the meantime, France is planning for its next-generation milsatcom capability, dubbed Comsat-NG, to be operational in 2019. The new system will offer Ka and UHF frequency bands in addition to the X-band capacity now available on the country's two Syracuse 3 spacecraft.

Astrium Services CEO Eric Beranger says the study contracts indicate the new French government is keeping an open mind when it comes to procuring future military satellite communications. “They are looking at all the options, including their own acquisition, but also to the potential externalization and potential international cooperation,” he says.

Astrium Services, which owns the U.K.'s Skynet satellites, has long said the Skynet experience demonstrates that the expected cost-savings can be realized for governments through privatization of a once-state-owned network.

France appeared ready to move in a similar direction under then-President Nicolas Sarkozy with a program called Nectar that would have involved the sale and leaseback of the Syracuse 3 constellation. But the idea was rejected by the government, due largely to lingering French concerns that letting the private sector control a strategic national asset could hamstring freedom of movement.

Industry counters that the government is facing a cash shortfall and the sale and leaseback arrangement would allow it to collect several hundred million euros in exchange for parceling out these payments through the end of the satellites' lives. Support for privatization was complicated by the fact that, unlike Skynet, France's two Syracuse 3 satellites, launched in 2005 and 2006, were never designed with outsourcing capacity in mind.

Astrium designed Skynet to provide capacity requirements, including surge capacity, but with enough left over for sale to other governments. With France now moving forward on Comsat-NG, the argument for outsourcing could prove that much stronger if the defense ministry wants to avoid a significant capital investment that would start around 2014.

Until now, French-Anglo efforts to develop joint requirements leading to a possible future joint milsatcom system have largely stalled. But France and Italy are making progress on a pair of collaborative satellite communications programs developed by Thales Alenia Space. Working with the French and Italian defense ministries and their respective space agencies, the company served as the industrial partner that enabled the first and only collaborative European initiative in the area of defense and security communications in space. The program will allow France to fly a milsatcom payload aboard Italy's Sicral 2 satcom spacecraft, slated to launch in November 2013. Sicral 2 will complement two earlier-generation Sicral 1 spacecraft as well as Syracuse 3.

In addition, Paris and Rome cooperated with Thales Alenia Space in developing the Athena-Fidus dual-use broadband system slated to launch next year and in the area of imaging intelligence with the Helios 1 and 2 and the Cosmo-SkyMed.