A BRITISH-BUILT satellite was expected to be fired into space from Cape Canaveral, Florida, last night to provide the 16-nation Nato alliance with 'secure military and diplomatic communications', protected against electronic jamming, until the end of the century.
The launch of the pounds 50m satellite comes at a time when Nato is looking set to expand eastward and when the Russian threat to the West has diminished.
The satellite is the second of two built for Nato by British Aerospace Space Systems, of Stevenage, and Matra Marconi Space, of Portsmouth. Britain is the only western country apart from the US building such satellites, the first of which was launched in January 1991.
The satellite will be placed in 'geo-synchronous orbit' above the equator - rotating at the same speed as the earth so it appears to stand still - initially at six degrees east of Greenwich, which is roughly level with Bonn. It is thus positioned squarely over the middle of the European land territory of Nato.
BAe say it will be used to provide 'secure and reliable military communications between Nato member nations and forces under Nato control'. It declined to elaborate on the satellite's uses but they could include communications from Nato's headquarters outside Brussels and the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe to the Rapid Reaction Corps at Bielefeld, Germany.
Its uses could also include communications with headquarters responsible for air operations over Bosnia-Herzegovina: Nato's Southern Command in Naples or the 5th Allied Tactical Airforce at Vicenza. The satellite can communicate with ground stations or with terminals on ships at sea.
The Nato IV programme is managed by the British Ministry of Defence under an agreement with the Nato Communications and Information Systems Agency. But last week a Ministry of Defence spokesman said he could find no-one who knew anything about the planned launch.
The new satellite was scheduled for launch at midnight last night, aboard a McDonnell Douglas Delta II launcher.
The first British satellite, Nato IVA, was launched three years ago, initially into an orbit at 18 degrees west, over the Atlantic.
The Nato IV satellites are based on the British Skynet 4 military communications series. The body is 2.2 metres wide and 2.3 metres high , with solar panels extending to a total span of 16 metres.