Spying From Space:
U.S. to Sharpen the Focus
By Joseph Fitchett
International Herald Tribune

Anyone wondering where U.S. military investment is headed need look no farther than the next generation of spy satellites that are being built now and will start going into orbit in 2005.

The estimated 20-year price tag is $25 billion, making this program the most expensive venture ever mounted by U.S. intelligence services. In comparison, the Manhattan project, the World War II crash program to build the atomic bomb, cost $20 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars.

For its money, Washington expects to get a new system of electronic cameras that can be trained on potential trouble spots anywhere on the planet on a couple of hours' notice or less. It will be "an incredible improvement" in America's ability to spy from the sky, a U.S. official said in Washington. He said the satellites would be able to track objects as small as a baseball anywhere, anytime on the planet.

"We're going from a legacy system, which essentially focused on Soviet nuclear missiles and other strategic capabilities, to a network designed for the multiple challenges confronting the United States in the post-Cold War era," said John Pike, director of Global Security.org, a private company in the Washington area that provides independent analysis of U.S. intelligence technology.

To make the leap to this new security climate, the National Reconnaissance Office, the secretive U.S. agency responsible for military satellites, plans to deploy a dozen or so new satellites — both smaller and smarter — to replace the half-dozen of the current generation.

The program has been closely — and often heatedly — followed by Congress, usually in closed-door sessions, and is envied by allies who are starting to invest in a few spy satellites of their own because they do not fully trust Washington to share objectively the intelligence gleaned from U.S. space-based cameras.

"American administrations have told us only what they wanted us to know, sometimes in misleading terms and often with gaps," said a French official who declined to be identified. Increasingly nettlesome questions about the political and technical problems involved in sharing electronic intelligence have emerged in recent years since the European Union started to develop its own defense role.

France has taken the lead in arguing that EU governments should invest in spy satellites because Europeans cannot rely entirely on Washington. Germany has edged toward that view since the Kosovo conflict, when the German Defense Ministry complained that its troops on the ground were exposed to needless risks because the allies had inadequate access to U.S satellite data.

The real EU aim, counters the Center for European Reform, a London-based research institute, should be closer cooperation with the United States in this high-tech sector where Europe can only barely begin to match U.S. resources.

In the planned new system, the U.S. space-based cameras will collect from eight to 20 times more imagery than the present array, according to people at the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington-based group with access to some aspects of the secretive program. While performance details are classified, experts said that the modernized, miniaturized satellites would be able to identify objects one-tenth the size of those visible in commercially available satellite pictures.

The truly revolutionary feature, however, is not in the sky but in the ground station computers that will capture the downloads of electronic imagery, process the data into usable intelligence and then distribute pictures to a growing throng of U.S. government agencies — the official consumers for the material. "Where the loop used to involve a half-dozen players, there are now scores of offices that want to put in orders for satellite coverage and then get the data back fast, and all this traffic to be prioritized and the material processed," Mr. Pike said.

Ultimately, the program is supposed to be able to deliver detailed pictures from space to U.S. commanders on the battlefield.

Until now, these high-resolution images, which can be taken at night or through clouds, have taken days to reach down to the officers involved in combat or tactical operations such as peacekeeping.

'Future Imagery Architecture'

This modernized system of spy satellites "has the potential to revolutionize the way the United States employs military forces, and it can also greatly complicate the lives of terrorists, drug lords and weapons proliferators," according to a study by the Federation of American Scientists.

Set in motion under President Bill Clinton under the name of "future imagery architecture," the program fits the Bush administration's drive to develop U.S. military uses of space, possibly including sensors for its controversial planned anti-missile defenses.

The new imagery program has been the target of fierce congressional battles, with one critic complaining that the program had the "potential to become the biggest white elephant in U.S. intelligence history" if it failed to spend enough on data management.

The key problem, warned the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, was the complex management system needed to set the priorities for the satellites' cameras, to process the images, turn them into intelligence and then disseminate it to policymakers, analysts and military commanders. The last Congress increased the program's budget with funds earmarked to improve the integration of the space-based cameras and the infrastructure on the ground.

In the process, the United States dropped a program of more sophisticated satellites, which would have zoomed around the planet in low orbits, on the grounds that their output of images would have simply overwhelmed the ability of government agencies to control the output. Instead, the satellite program now gives top priority to the challenge of more responsive links between what the space-based cameras see and what U.S. policymakers need to worry about.

"The United States, obviously, is increasing its ability to act unilaterally if Washington wants to do so because U.S. overhead imagery has a huge advantage in technology and spending and memory and systems-integration," Mr. Pike said.

His view, echoed by Bush administration officials who declined to be quoted by name, is that the new satellites — and their data-management systems — are being designed with conventional warfare in mind.

"This is all about instantaneous, smart distribution of digitalized information that can enable U.S. forces to strike from safe distances and devastate adversaries thanks to the overwhelming U.S. advantage in situational awareness and communications," Mr. Pike said.

U.S. dominance is not being allowed to develop unchallenged by allied nations in Europe and Japan.

Although the allies cannot afford to match the U.S. array of intelligence satellites and then-planned degree of integration with combat units, some governments are developing satellite systems that they hope will end their complete dependence on the United States in this crucial sector of high-tech warfare and security policy.

As part of the European Union's bid for a stronger voice in Western defense, France has a program for two spy satellites — one of which, Helios 1, has been operational for three years — and Germany plans one of its own to complement the French pair.

Japan, alarmed by North Korea's advanced missile tests in 1998, will launch its first spy satellites — a set of four — in two years. Israel, Canada and India each have a spy satellite. Russia has inherited the once-extensive Soviet-built network of reconnaissance satellites, which is deteriorating but is still good enough for China to buy its space-based visual intelligence cheaply from Moscow.

While these systems mean that Washington will never regain the monopoly it once had among allies on satellite pictures, no other nation seems likely to come close to duplicating the wide array of different kinds of electronic intelligence satellites deployed by the United States and capable of being orchestrated — "cued" in spy jargon — to focus on a single target.

U.S. assets that can help track moving targets include high-flying aircraft such as the U-2 reconnaissance planes that were brought back into service during the 1990s. They involve a risk of political embarrassment since they can be brought down, as happened in 1960 when a U-2 piloted by Gary Powers was shot down in the Soviet Union and recently off China, where a U.S. aircraft was engaged not in taking pictures but in listening to Chinese communications.

Increasingly, these planes will be replaced — and the satellite coverage supplemented — by pilotless drones. U.S. commanders in the Gulf War were impressed with the flexibility of these unmanned reconnaissance planes on the battlefield, even though they lack the broad views offered to satellites in space.

Ability to Read E-Mail?

All of the visual satellites have nothing to do with electronic eavesdropping via satellites in the global system known as Echelon. Europeans have been alarmed by its alleged ability to read e-mail and listen to phone conversations anywhere on the planet.

The Echelon system — which U.S. intelligence officials have denied is used for commercial espionage — uses satellites that are developed and launched by the National Reconnaissance Office.

This agency, whose existence was only acknowledged officially in the 1990s, operates all the different satellites used by different agencies for taking pictures and listening to transmissions.

Electronic intelligence satellites are run by the National Security Agency, which has its own $5 billion program, code-named "Groundbreaker," to upgrade its listening capabilities. Britain shares the cost and intelligence take of these U.S. programs.

In this field, trans-Atlantic competition intensified in the 1990s. France has four powerful listening posts around the planet that can intercept all the traffic handled by international communications satellites, a French weekly, Nouvel Observateur, reports in its current issue. One ground station is in French Guyana, ideally situated to capture phone calls, faxes and e-mails flowing in and out of the United States via Intelsat. Paris has persuaded Germany to share the costs — and the intelligence take — of its intercept program and has started work on two more ground stations, the Paris magazine said.

The U.S. eavesdropping capabilities extend much farther in the Echelon program. Beyond intercepting calls handled by satellite and tapping intercontinental undersea telephone cables, the United States also operates satellites designed to intercept local calls.

Orbiting several thousand miles above the earth, these Ferret and Rhyolite satellites — deploying antennas the size of football fields — can pick up conversations flowing through ground lines all over the world.

Eavesdropping has aroused concern in many countries because individual privacy and especially sensitive business deals may be at risk. The U.S. ability to get imagery from its reconnaissance satellites — both electro-optical and radar — is less controversial because it is more clearly aimed at what officials call crisis management to help maintain global stability.

This program is run by the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, an agency that came into being in the early 1990s as the Pentagon lost its monopoly control of what U.S. spy satellites do and who gets to see the results.

Now a new, decentralized approach has been adopted in Washington. User agencies — now several dozen as opposed to a handful during the Cold War — are entitled to ask that satellites be used to take pictures in accordance with their own priorities, which range from monitoring nuclear tests and arms build-ups to humanitarian problems such as locating refugees fleeing civil wars in Africa.

The strength of the U.S. system is that, in the last resort, all the different satellite assets can respond in a crisis to orders from the CIA, whose head is also the chief of the intelligence community in Washington. The CIA chief has the last word on which satellite does what at any particular moment.

If a warning signal is picked up by the Echelon system or other intelligence sources — for example, the electronic-intelligence aircraft that was forced to land while prowling near China's border last week — Washington can then focus its reconnaissance satellites and other intelligence activities on the spot to home in on the crisis.

While the European allies do not have the means or ambition to match this flexibility and multilayered coverage, France and Germany seem intent on gaining the ability to see for themselves in crises involving, say, troop movements or developments at a missile launching site anywhere in the world.

For political and budgetary reasons, France and Germany have agreed on a division of labor in which the French Helios 2, an optical satellite, will be complemented by a German radar satellite, Sarlupe. The electro-optical satellite, which functions like a telescope trained on the earth, takes pictures, even at night thanks to infrared technology; the German radar satellite will be able to produce an image of objects outlined by radar waves even through clouds.

'Keeping Americans Honest'

Combining the output of these different types of imagery offers significant gains for the French and German intelligence analysts, experts said. As a result, the Europeans' information "will be enough to keep the Americans honest" in telling other governments about what satellites are seeing in a crisis, according to a French defense analyst, Francois Heisbourg.

"Of course, the Americans will have a super-truck and we, even with a pooling of French and German information, will have only a tiny car; but we're both in a different league from people who are still stuck on foot," said Mr. Heisbourg, who heads the Geneva Institute for Security Studies.

An intriguing question is whether the United States and the European Union might someday agree on some form of institutionalized cooperation on satellite intelligence that would enable them to share the costs and the raw data of joint imagery programs.

Keith Hall, the director of the National Reconnaissance Office, has publicly hinted at the possibility of some accord on sharing electronic intelligence, but diplomats said that any actual U.S. overture to the allies would almost certainly encounter objections in parts of the U.S. intelligence community and Congress.

The trans-Atlantic sensitivities over electronic intelligence are highlighted by a split inside the EU because of Britain's special intelligence ties with the United States. London enjoys access not only to Echelon data but also to the imagery from U.S. satellites, but it is not free to share the material with other governments.

Its EU partners suspect that Britain wants to divide its loyalties between Europe, with its hope for a common defense policy, and the United States, with its unique ability to give London a direct look at secret developments in inaccessible places such as Iran or North Korea and early warning about unfolding crises anywhere.

Significantly, London has declined to take part in the French-led drive to develop the EU member states' program of spy satellites that could counterbalance the virtual U.S. monopoly in this sector.

More Range and 'Loiter Time'

The dominance of the United States stems from its huge investment in spy technology. The exact figures are secret, usually hidden in other appropriations, but most experts estimate that Washington will spend $1 billion a year for the new satellite program on top of $5 billion in design and development costs. The combined annual spending on separate but complementary European programs runs to an estimated $50 million.

Whereas the EU nations hope to have one or two optical satellites and one radar satellite, the United States expects to have five or six of each kind in orbit under the new program, which will run for 20 or 30 years from 2005, officials said in Washington.

The plan is to retire the current U.S. satellites — three optical cameras in the so-called Keyhole series and two or three Lacrosse satellites that use radar to create synthetic images through cloud cover — and replace them with five or six new satellites of each type.

They will probably orbit 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) high, enabling them to keep any target within camera range for perhaps a half-hour — as opposed to the 10 minutes of "loiter time" enjoyed by the current generation of space-based cameras, experts said.

The new satellites will be smaller than the old ones — roughly, a minivan instead of a school bus. As a result, they will be harder to detect and disable, cheaper to build and easier to put in orbit quickly.

In recent years, India, North Korea and Serbia have all managed to dupe U.S. intelligence by timing their troop movements or other actions to avoid the U.S. satellites' regular orbit or by using decoys and camouflage to fool the space-borne cameras.

In awarding the main contract for the new system to Boeing, Congress insisted that the company save money by devising a basic satellite that can carry either telescopes or radar as the viewing device — a feature that would make it easier to build replacements.

This article appeared in the International Herald Tribune, 2001-04-10, pages 1 and 4.

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