Europe’s spy satellites take on US might in the skies

France has its Helios satellites, Germany its SAR-Lupe radar aircraft and Italy its Cosmo SkyMed. The problem is that each does not know what the others are doing – or snooping on. Now a new system, called MUSIS, aims to change that.


It’s been called the great golden gizmo of French military spy satellites and, once it’s launched, the Helios 2B promises to upgrade European intelligence gathering, providing high-resolution images of often remote, dangerous terrain and assisting in military risk assessments.

On Wednesday, the Helios 2B - a 4,200-kilogram, golden hued satellite - was scheduled to blast off on a European Ariane rocket from a launch site in French Guiana. The launch was, however, indefinitely postponed due to technical problems with the Ariane launcher, according to French defence ministry officials.

A 2-billion-euro project primarily funded by France - with Italy, Belgium, Spain and Greece chipping in 10 percent of the costs - the launch of the Helios 2B was hailed as “an important event for French citizens, for the military forces, for our European partners and for Europe’s defence,” a French Defence Ministry statement said.

But the launch delay in no way hinders an ambitious ongoing programme by six EU nations that aims to increase European military intelligence cooperation.

Called MUSIS (Multinational Space-based Imaging System), the programme pools the resources of France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Italy and Greece. It will be designed to work on national platforms such as France’s Helios satellites, Germany’s SAR-Lupe radar reconnaissance spacecraft and Italy’s Cosmo SkyMed radar satellites by 2015.

While there is no dearth of satellite-generated military intelligence today, experts note that the existence of national platforms increases resource wastage. This often happens when various national spy satellite systems are trained on the same site. Experts note that instead of training a number of national platforms on one site, systems like MUSIS can help members share relevant information.

Taking on US domination of space intelligence

At the heart of the recent moves to boost European intelligence cooperation is the tricky business of US domination of space intelligence, an imbalance that some European nations have attempted to address in recent years.

The end of the Cold War forced Europe to rethink its position on the military use of space with many European capitals realising they could not – or would rather not – rely on intelligence data fed by the US.

This realisation was underlined by US intelligence failures in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. “We cannot rely solely on US intelligence, the Iraq War proves this point,” said Alain Lamballe, former French military attaché to India and Pakistan, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Under French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Paris has increased its military cooperation with Washington. Earlier this year, Sarkozy brought France back into NATO’s military command after a 40-year partial rift with the military alliance.

But France continues to see independent access to space intelligence as a strategic priority. The Helios 2B programme was initially planned as a pan-European satellite series to counter US domination in the field of space intelligence.

Getting by with a little - very little - help from European friends

But European space intelligence cooperation has not always been a smooth process, according to Lamballe. “Of course it’s important to have a common European system,” he said. “Unfortunately, it does not always work satisfactorily, not due to technical reasons, but due to the lack of political will.”

One of the primary concerns for some EU countries, according to Lamballe, is London’s special relationship with Washington on intelligence matters. Some of the UK’s European allies worry that London cannot hand over certain top secret US reports to the EU community.

Since intelligence assessments play a critical role in formulating foreign policy – especially with closed or rogue states – critics argue that the fact that EU countries receive different and divergent assessments will make it harder to forge common foreign policies.

In recent times, European military intelligence cooperation has been stymied by more basic issues. For the Helios 2B series for instance, France’s European partners have not been very forthcoming with their financial participation.

France, for instance, has financed 90 percent of the Helios 2 programme, while Italy, Belgium, Spain and Greece have contributed 10 percent.

Despite the problems, most European military analysts stress that the future lies in greater intelligence cooperation. And in order to achieve that, MUSIS, they say, provides the way forward.


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