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News from the High-Throughput Satellites London Roundtable | Italian Defense Officials Fight To Restore Slashed Space Funding

The latest funding will keep the Cosmo-SkyMed program (above, Cosmo-Skymed 3 launching) on track until next spring. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo

L’AQUILA, Italy — Italian defense officials on Dec. 3 said Italy’s proposed 2014 space budget strips the country of doing anything aside from performing maintenance of its in-orbit satellites and existing space centers and threatens the future of Italy’s Cosmo-SkyMed radar reconnaissance program.

In speeches here during the inauguration of a satellite electronics facility owned by Thales Alenia Space, replacing the site destroyed by earthquake in April 2009, officials said they would fight in the coming weeks to restore a budget that has been cut by 43 percent in two years.

Marco Airaghi, the defense representative at the Italian Space Agency (ASI), said he was part of a minority that voted against ASI’s proposed 2014 budget because of its consequences on ASI’s dual-use programs, including the second-generation Cosmo-SkyMed system.

Airaghi said ASI recently agreed, after long debate, to finance another funding tranche for the second-generation Cosmo-SkyMed system. Valued at about 56 million euros ($76 million), the latest funding will keep the program on track until next spring. At that point, he said, it is anyone’s guess as to how further funding will be made available.

In recent years Italy has been the third-largest funder of the 20-nation European Space Agency (ESA). At a November 2012 meeting of ESA governments, Italy reduced its participation in many ESA programs but nonetheless maintained its ESA funding at 400 million euros per year.

Italy’s total space budget, meanwhile, has been shrinking, from 580 million euros in 2012 to 530 million in 2013, and a proposed 503 million for 2014.

Airaghi said all the funding cuts have come from Italy’s national efforts as the ESA financing is part of multinational commitments to multiyear programs.

“In that 580 million euros you had just 180 million for our entire national program,” Airaghi said. “When it was cut to 530 million, that left us with 130 million. The latest proposal, which I voted against, is for 503 million euros, meaning just 103 million for our national efforts. That’s a 43 percent reduction in two years.”

Airaghi said a 103-million-euro budget is just enough to finance ASI and its personnel, maintain in orbit Italy’s government satellites, and perform upkeep on Italy’s Space Geodesy Center in Matera and the tracking station in Malindi, Kenya.

“The current budget proposal zeros out all our national efforts, and as the defense representative on the ASI board I wanted to point that out,” Airaghi said in explaining his vote against approval of the budget.

“ASI’s dual-use activities are an example for all of Europe,” Airaghi said. The Cosmo-SkyMed radar constellation is managed as both a military and a civil/commercial project. Italy is joining France in building a Ka-band broadband satellite, called Athena-Fidus, that has both military and civil applications and is being financed in part by the French and Italian defense ministries.

The idea that ASI might be forced to cease development of the next-generation Cosmo-SkyMed, Airaghi said, illustrates how dramatic the situation has become.

In an interview, Airaghi said the Italian government’s overall research budget has remained steady, at about 2 billion euros per year, through the nation’s recent financial crisis. But budget allocation authorities, he said, appear to have other priorities despite the evidence that space technology can be a motor for economic growth, especially in a region such as l’Aquila.

Roberta Pinotti, undersecretary of state in the Italian Defense Ministry, agreed that Italy’s research priorities view defense spending as something that does not help the economy.

“Investing in defense is also investing in labor and creating jobs,” Pinotti said. “The [dual-use] satellite programs that we have invested in for defense have also benefited the civil sector.”

Pinotti said there is still time to reclaim at least some financing that otherwise will make it impossible for Italy to maintain its place as a space technology power. 

“I have heard your concerns,” Pinotti said, addressing officials from Italy’s space sector. “We need to start from scratch in building support, just like they started from scratch to build this new facility.”

 

Follow Peter on Twitter: @pbdes

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