BND Questions Space-Based Intel

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.


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