Britain is weighing whether French or American rocket hardware would do a better job of putting the country's latest military satellites into space. And a diplomatic row is brewing: It seems increasingly likely that Britain will shun the European-built Ariane rocket in favor of the United States space shuttle, even though Britain is a member of the European Space Agency, the 11 -nation consortium that developed Ariane at a cost of (STR)500 million ($750 million).
France put up some two-thirds of the funds for the rocket and has a large stake in Arianespace, the Paris-based company that sells launch slots on the vehicle.
Britain seems likely to ignore European solidarity and choose the US space shuttle as the launch vehicle for two Skynet-4 satellites that will go into orbit in 1986.
The vehicles, to be put in geostationary orbit above the Atlantic, will provide communications links between defense establishments in Britain and the country's armed forces in Europe and the Western Hemisphere. The craft will connect Britain's Ministry of Defense with warships in the Atlantic, should the need ever arise to send another fleet southward to defend the Falklands.
Last year's Falklands conflict rammed home to Britain's military chiefs the importance of good communications links worldwide. As a result, the government placed top priority on getting the two new Skynet vehicles into service.
Britain's last Skynet military satellite was put in orbit by a US rocket in 1974 but went out of service a few years later. Since then, Britain has relied on US or NATO defense satellites for military communications links. During the Falklands war, for example, data and voice channels were provided by a US military satellite.
Britain has to decide on the launch vehicle for the Skynets very soon because both Arianespace and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which operates the shuttle, sign up customers for launches at least three years in advance.
Britain's Ministry of Defense will not comment on which launch craft it will plump for. A spokesman said ministers have not made up their minds.
But a NASA official in Washington said the ministry has begun making advance payments for a flight in 1986, even though a full decision to proceed with a contract has not been taken.
Because of the classified nature of the payload, Britain is negotiating with the Department of Defense as well as NASA. If Britain chooses the shuttle, the two flights will be classed as Department of Defense missions and will be wrapped in a tight security blanket.
One reason Britain is likely to favor the shuttle over Ariane: The US is more used to taking military payloads into space. British officials say the US can be relied on to guard the satellites while they are awaiting launch.
By contract, Arianespace's launch pad is in Kourou, French Guiana, where security procedures are likely to be less tight.
Nonetheless, a British decision to plump for the shuttle will anger France.
A spokesman for Arianespace said the company has had full discussions with the Ministry of Defense. Arianspace insists it can handle all the necessary security arrangements.
The French government has been kept informed on the position. It seems likely the French have warned to Britain about giving the contract to the US.
The dust-up over the British contract is the latest incident in the commercial battle between Ariane and the space shuttle, the two main contenders in the business of taking communications satellites into orbit.