L’Echelon Advances

October 30, 2008

France is looking to round out its space-based intelligence collection capability. Having already fielded the Helios-2 imaging satellites and receiving radar-satellite data through a barter agreement with Germany and Italy, signals intelligence is next on the agenda.

Several technology projects have been well underway for a space-based signals intelligence system for some time, and now Paris has published more concrete plans for an operational system.

Under the newly unveiled multi-year spending law, the French government wants to have the system become operational in 2016. Called, Ceres, the system is open to European partners. In fact, France has been eager to get support from others, including Germany, for well over a year — so far with little success.

Ceres would build on the Essaim demonstrator, which was launched in December 2004, and will remain operational until next year. Essaim already has created enough interest in France to support funding of a follow-on development activity, Elisa. Elisa actually consists of payloads carried on four micro-satellites.

That sytem would even provide a limited operational capacity once it is orbited in 2010. The mini-constellation would be in orbit for three years.


Iraqi Move to Intel Independence

October 27, 2008

The Iraqi Air Force has taken another baby step to become less dependent on the U.S., this time in the realm of intelligence collection.

After several months of working closely with U.S. trainers, the Iraqis, last week, for the first time supported an exercise using a fully Iraqi crew. The exercise was a special operations drill, with the King Air intelligence aircraft overhead.

The Iraqis used their MX15I forward looking infrared sensor to provide convoy watch, and warn of potential threats. They also conducted more broad-based surveillance. The General Atomics synthetic aperture radar is not fully operational, yet, although it should be in the coming weeks or so, U.S. officials told me when I visited the Iraqi unit.

Iraqi King Air intelligence aircraft

Iraqi King Air intelligence aircraft


The information can be stored or downlinked directly to the ground, although for the purposes of the exercise any alerts were provided through voice communication.

One of the issues the Iraqis apparently still have is image exploitation. The joint intelligence school is still building up a cadre of expert imagery analysts, but there’s not enough capacity or experience, yet, to adequately do the job, I was told.

So make no mistake, even though this all-Iraqi mission was an important milestone for the young service, the Iraqi Air Force is far from ready to taking on the intelligence task on its own. There’s still many aspects of how to use the system that they need to learn about, including the SAR, so it’s unlikely U.S. advisors will be gone soon.

BND Questions Space-Based Intel

October 26, 2008

Germany’s main floreign intelligence service is apparently raising questions about the value of intelligence provided by satellites in an era when the primary threat is from terrorism.

I was recently visiting a military conference in Germany where a senior staff officer in the country’s general staff raised the issue. The Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) has apparently articulated the concern during a recent discussion in Berlin.

Obviously the BND isn’t thefirst group to question the value of satellite intelligence at a time when good humint is needed to penetrate terrorist groups. But what makes it an interesting comment is that it comes after years of effort by the German military to field the SAR-Lupe space-based radar system. The military is apparently quite happy with the results delivered by the five-satellite system, which has been operational a few months, but is the intelligence service less so?

The comment also raises some interesting questions about Germany’s future position on funding space-based surveillance systems. France is trying to get other European countries interested in funding a space-based electronic-intelligence capability. The message from Germany has been mixed. A senior air force official told me several months ago the military wasn’t interested, citing a lack of funding and a focus on airborne signals intelligence (Germany is buying the EuroHawk, a derivative of the U.S. Global Hawk unmanned aircraft fitted with an EADS sigint package).

It also raises questions about Germany’s role in Musis. That’s another long-term effort to get Europe to work together on a future generation of earth observation satellites to replace the current generation of French Helios-2 electro-optical spacecraft, the Italian Cosmo-SkyMed radar system, and SAR-Lupe. 

So far, German companies doesn’t seem too worried. OHB Technology and EADS Astrium are busy arguing over what a future German early warning satellite system should look like, and they seem not too worried about whether the country’s commitment to military space investments may be questioned by the intelligence community. Perhaps the two companies are focused on the right issue, though. Although right now,there’s no early warning satellite program, a Luftwaffe officer tells me that could change, particularly if coupled with the country’s interest in a space-surveillance system.