By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Canada and four other countries will contribute $620 million toward the $1 billion cost of building and operating a ninth satellite in a new U.S. military communications system, a move that will improve cooperation among those countries and save money at a time when defense budgets are shrinking.
U.S. officials also said on Tuesday they would negotiate with Boeing this year about work on a tenth satellite approved by Congress in the fiscal 2012 defense appropriations bill; the company, the prime contractor on the $10 billion satellite program, last week won a $377 million contract to build the satellite.
The United States, Canada, New Zealand, Denmark, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands had signed a 20-year memorandum of understanding cementing the partnership for the satellite system on January 12, building on an existing bilateral agreement with Australia on the Wideband Global Satellite Communications (WGS) program signed in 2007.
Officials from all seven countries met in Washington on Tuesday for an initial steering meeting on the program.
The agreement went into force last week, and a Dutch military official said his country had begun using satellite communications from the three WGS satellites already in orbit.
The U.S. Air Force is due to launch a fourth satellite on Thursday from Cape Canaveral.
Tightening budgets and greater reliance on coalitions for warfighting have increased the number of weapons programs that involve funding and participation by foreign governments.
For instance, Lockheed Martin Corp is developing the next-generation F-35 fighter for U.S. military forces and eight international partners.
OPEN TO FURTHER EXPANSION
U.S. officials said they remained open to expanding the cooperation agreement if other countries were interested, but there were no specific expansion plans at the moment.
The deal gives Canada and the other countries access to critical wideband satellite services that carry large bandwidth and high data rate communications to military forces around the globe at a rate corresponding to their level of contribution.
Heidi Grant, U.S. Air Force deputy undersecretary for international affairs, said the agreement would strengthen ties among the partner countries, improve the resiliency of military communications, provide greater operational flexibility, and enhance the ability of allied forces to work together.
She said battlefield demand for information was at a record high and expanding exponentially given how important satellite communications have become to military operations.
Lieutenant Colonel March Assel with the Luxembourg military said the agreement was a "golden opportunity" for a small country like his to have access to a global satellite system.
U.S. Major General John Hyten, director of space programs for the U.S. Air Force acquisition office, said the primary driver for the partnership was operational, but said the deal would also have "huge" financial benefits for the United States and its partners at a time when defense budgets are falling.
WGS, the next-generation wideband satellite communications system, is augmenting and replacing the current Defense Satellite Communication System.
CODE OF CONDUCT
Separately, the U.S. State Department on Tuesday announced that the United States would join with the European Union and other nations to develop an international code of conduct that would establish guidelines for responsible use of outer space.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States had a vital interest in protecting its space systems from space debris and irresponsible actors, but would not sign a code of conduct that "in any way constrains our national security-related activities in space or our ability to protect the United States and our allies."
There are about 60 countries and government consortia that operate satellites, and the Pentagon tracks about 22,000 objects in space, of which about 1,100 are active satellites.
(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)