France’s Ministry of Defense says Paris has ordered two spy satellites in a $1 billion contract with EADS Astrium.
The order, part of the European MUSIS space surveillance system, will be paid off with the aid of Germany, Belgium, Spain, Greece and Italy, with each set to pitch in about 10 percent of the price tag.
“These two satellites will constitute the space optical component of the future program for space imagery for defense and security, MUSIS [Multinational Space-based System],” a French Ministry of Defense statement said.
Military experts indicated that Astrium is the prime contractor for the new satellites, with Thales Alenia Space building the optical instruments. The first satellite is expected to be launched into orbit in December 2016.
The ambitious six-nation MUSIS program aims to increase European military intelligence cooperation. The program is designed to work on national platforms such as France’s Helios satellites, Germany’s SAR-Lupe radar reconnaissance spacecraft and Italy’s Cosmo SkyMed radar satellites by 2015.
The new satellite will replace the Helios 2 military spy satellites, adding upgraded sensors designed to identify smaller targets, deliver to decision-makers a greater number of pictures from crisis zones and do it more quickly, the defense ministry said in its statement.
The $2.6 billion project opts to boost European intelligence cooperation at a time of U.S. domination of space intelligence. Many nations have tried to address the imbalance in recent years but those efforts have yet to heed results.
The end of the Cold War forced Europe to rethink its position on the military use of space with many European capitals realizing that they couldn’t rely on U.S.-fed intelligence.
In recent years and under the stewardship of President Nicolas Sarkozy, Paris has moved to increase its cooperation with Washington, bringing France back into the military fold of NATO after a 40-year rift with the alliance.
Still, France has long argued in favor of the need for independent access to space intelligence.
Under the Helios contract, provision allow for the creation of a third satellite. Such an order though would hinge on a cooperation agreement with other European countries that will allow for shared financing of the optical component, the French defense ministry statement said.
Under the contract, also, the Direction Generale de l’Armement procurement office has assigned the CNES French space agency to serve as space manager for the MUSIS optical satellites.
A long-standing consideration among the MUSIS partners has been London’s special relationship with Washington on intelligence matters. Many of Britain’s European peers have expressed concern over London’s willingness and ability to relay top secret U.S. reports to EU members.