Figure 5 Image of the Al Jazeira dam in Sudan taken by U.K. DMC satellite, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., supplied by DMC International Imaging Ltd.

European Eyes in the Sky

Strategic Independence is Focus as Security Comes to the Forefront


Theresa Hitchens
World Security Institute’s Center for Defense Information
Washington, D.C.

A quiet revolution is happening in Europe vis-a-vis space. While Europe long has been a player in the global space game, European activities traditionally have focused on the civil and commercial uses of space. Over the past several years, this focus has been changing as European nations have come to recognize the value space systems can bring to their military operations.

This change is driven in part by Europe’s efforts to create an independent Rapid Reaction Force for peacekeeping operations, but also by the reali-zation that much of the U.S. military’s current “battlefield edge” comes from its use of space power. Movement, as is often the case in Europe, has been slow, but the shift in thinking is palpable — and funding is starting to follow.

Nowhere is this revolution more obvious than in the field of remote sensing. At least 31 European remote sensing satellites are currently operat-ing or are planned for launch by the end of the decade by individual nations, coalitions and/or by European nations collectively. Of that total, seven satellites are dedicated military assets, including a first-ever German military reconnaissance satellite, SAR-Lupe. Another seven are explicitly dual-use, including Italy’s first radar satellite constellation, COSMO-SkyMed.

Examination of the technical capabilities planned for the remaining civilian satellite systems reveals that European militaries also stand to bene-fit from these programs. The new satellite networks would be able to provide vastly improved capabilities for mapping and targeting, reconnais-sance, troop monitoring, ocean surveillance and weather prediction — raising a host of questions regarding future U.S.-European defense relations.

Dedicated Military Systems

Only two dedicated military Earth observation satellite programs (each involving a constellation of multiple satellites) are ongoing in Europe — one by France and one, as noted above, by Germany. In addition, data from these national military programs will be shared not only between Paris and Berlin, but also perhaps with the European Union.

France and Germany have an agreement to share data from Hélios 2 and SAR-Lupe, providing receivers for each system with receivers for the other.[1] In addition, Belgium and Spain will receive Hélios 2 data under a shared cost agreement whereby they each provide a 2.5 percent share of the estimated price tag of 2 billion Euros.[2]

Figure 1 Hélios 2A; credit: CNES/illustration David Ducros

France is in the midst of implementing its second-generation, two-satellite optical imaging constellation for military reconnaissance, called Hélios. The first-generation Hélios satellites, Hélios 1A and 1B, were launched respectively in 1995 and 1999. These had a resolution of about one meter and no infrared capability (thus were incapable of obtaining images at night or in cloudy weather.) Only Hélios 1A currently remains operational.

The second-generation program was begun with the launch of Hélios 2A on Dec. 18, 2004, into a sun-synchronous polar orbit. It carries a high-resolution camera and a wide-field camera, each operating in both the visible and near-infrared spectra with a resolution that is classified, but esti-mated at about 0.5 meters for the high-resolution camera.[3] France currently expects to launch Hélios 2B in late 2008. The Hélios 2 constellation will provide all day/night capability and also is being designed to “support targeting, guidance, mission planning and battle damage assessment.” See Figure 1.


Figure 2 SAR-Lupe; credit: OHB-System AG

Germany’s SAR-Lupe synthetic aperture radar constellation will comprise five satellites distributed over three polar orbits. See Figure 2. Operating in X-band, the radar satellites will have two modes: one to provide extended time imaging (Stripmap) and the other for high-resolution (Spotlight). Higher resolutions can be obtained by using two of the satellites in concert — this is what is referred to by the word Lupe, which means magnifying glass — with a best expected resolution of 0.5 meters.[4] Germany has experienced some development delays with the program (expected to cost about 300 million Euros), and now expects to launch the satellites between 2006 and 2008.

A radar system has several advantages over an optical one; in particular, it can provide high contrast topographic data, even through cloud cover and at night. Thus, the combination of Hélios 2 and SAR-Lupe data will significantly improve the around-the-clock reconnaissance ca-pabilities of the two partner nations.

Dual-Use Systems

Two key dual-use Earth imaging satellite programs are also under way in Europe: France’s Pleiades and Italy’s aforementioned COSMO-SkyMed. Here again the two governments have inked an agreement to share data, under a joint program effort called Optical and Radar Federated Earth-Observation (ORFEO).[5] In addition, Britain has an ongoing dual-use demonstration program using microsatellites for real-time imagery called TopSat, which may turn into a full-scale program.

Figure 3 Pleiades; credit: CNES/illustration Pierre Carril, 2005


Pleiades will be a dual-use successor to France’s SPOT optical Earth-observation satellite constellation. See Figure 3. However, access to data from the two Pleiades satellites will be prioritized to military users — with one of its advantages being the ability to take many images during one orbital pass, thus allowing rapid and detailed mapping of urban environments. The two satellites will be launched between 2008 and 2010 and will collect panchromatic data of 0.7-m resolution and multispectral data (blue, green, red and infrared) with 2.8-m resolution. Austria, Belgium, Spain, and Sweden are sharing the costs of the system in exchange for access to data.


The Constellation of Small Satellites for Mediterranean Basin Observation (COSMO-SkyMed) will comprise four X-band (9.6 GHz) syn-thetic aperture radar satellites, using a dawn/dusk sun-synchronous orbit. The system will provide a revisit rate of a few hours anywhere on the globe, with imaging in the meter and sub-meter resolution. The radar sensor on each satellite is being designed to work in four modes: Spot-light, with a resolution of less than one meter covering 10 square km; HIMAGE mode with 3-15-m resolution over a swath width of about 40 km; the WideRegion mode with about 30-m resolution for a swath width of about 100 km; and, the HugeRegion mode with 100-m resolution for a swath width of 200 km. In addition, two modes can be used at a time — a concept called PingPong mode — that will provide 15-m reso-lution and a swath width of 30 km.

The imagery provided will support a variety of military-intelligence missions. The 900 million-Euro program is supported in part by the Italian Defense Ministry and the satellites are to be launched between 2006 and 2008.

Figure 4 Image of the Dartford Bridge over the Thames in London taken by TopSat.
Credit: QinetiQ Ltd., 2006


TopSat is a demonstration program jointly funded by the British Ministry of Defense and the British National Space Center. It is aimed at proving that low-cost microsatellites can “provide high resolution images of a specific location – in real time, (to) a mobile ground station that can be taken to remote, off-road locations.” See Figure 4. The microsatellite, launched in October 2005 into a sun-synchronous orbit, is capable of 2.5-m panchromatic and 5-m multispectral resolution. The year-long mission will cost less than $25.8 million. The British military, which is interested in using microsatellites to provide intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and target acquisition directly to forces in the field, is considering a possible follow-on program.

Primarily Civil Systems

Two remote sensing projects with primarily civil applications are deserving of note with regard to potential military applications: the European Union-European Space Agency (EU-ESA) Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) effort, and Germany’s RapidEye.


GMES is a joint European Union, European Space Agency effort to enhance pan-European Earth observation abilities, in order to study climate change, improve mapping, monitor marine environments, provide warnings of natural and man-made disasters, and monitor borders. In addition, it is specifically designed to support the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy and the European Security and Defense Policy that govern joint European military operations (outside of NATO).[6 ]

The space segment of GMES will first involve integrating data from existing national and multinational remote sensing satellites and other sources, and between 2007 and 2012, will involve integrating five follow-on families of small satellites (dubbed Sentinels) into a unified net-work. While GMES has been politically approved by ESA’s member governments, the project has become bogged down in budgetary issues and political scraps about its future use and purpose.[7] Nonetheless, it is clear that GMES is being driven in large part by a desire for independ-ence from the United States with regard to Earth imaging capabilities.


Although being built primarily for the commercial market in agricultural imaging and mapping, Germany’s planned RapidEye constellation of five mini-satellites will also be used by the German military.[8] RapidEye, to be launched in 2007, is expected to provide multispectral im-agery with 6.5-m resolution (with a 77 km swath width).

New Capabilities, New Problems?

The mini-explosion of European remote sensing satellites raises interesting questions for the future of intra-European, as well as transatlantic, security relations. A key unknown is to what extent these systems and the data gathered by them will be integrated. This is a serious issue for GMES, for example, because it is highly unclear not only how national remote sensing systems (using different receiver structures, etc.) can be integrated, but also whether European governments will be willing to pay for such integration.[9]

This question is particularly applicable to Hélios 2 and SAR-Lupe, as military-controlled systems. Given that GMES is supposed to be provid-ing information to Europe’s integrated military forces, the latter question is critical.[10] The Hélios 2 investor nations agreed in principle in 2005 to share a very limited number of images with the European Union Satellite Center, which supplies imagery analysis to European Union bodies, in-cluding the military staff and the governing European Council, but that agreement has yet to be politically approved or implemented. No such promises have been made by Germany regarding SAR-Lupe.

An even bigger question is how the U.S. and Europe will integrate, if at all, remote sensing data for military users in future NATO and coa-lition operations.[11] If data are to be shared, and/or satellite operations integrated, what will be the security protocols regarding exchange or access to raw imagery and analysis? Will France and Germany necessarily want to provide unfettered U.S. access to Hélios 2 and SAR-Lupe, given that the U.S. in the past has generally kept raw imagery to itself, providing its allies only with U.S.-completed analyses?

Europe’s increasing remote sensing capacities and the growing interest among European nations for military space functionality independ-ent of the U.S. also raise some potential challenges to U.S. military planners. Already, U.S. concerns have emerged regarding how remote sensing data from European commercial and civil programs will be disseminated outside Europe, and what, if any, influence the U.S. will have in attempting to control dissemination it feels is detrimental to U.S. interests.

Another issue troubling U.S. military planners is remote sensing satellite technology cooperation between European countries and companies and non-European entities. This is particularly the case regarding China. Some in the U.S. have raised eyebrows over the collaboration between the U.K.-based Surrey Satellite Ltd. and China on two separate microsatellite programs, the Tsinghua-1 and the multinational Disaster Monitoring Constella-tion (DMC). The Tsinghau-1 project was both a training exercise for Chinese space scientists and operators and an experimental precursor to the DMC. Launched in 2002, “the 50 kg microsatellite carried a medium resolution multispectral Earth imaging payload providing 30-meter ground sampling distance (GSD) in four optical bands (NIR, green, blue),” according to Surrey Satellite’s website. See Figure 5 on page 20. The DMC is a five-nation constellation of Earth observation microsatellites (in the 100 kg range) for mid-resolution, wide-area mapping to monitor and help manage natural and man-made disasters.

Charges in the U.S. media that the collaboration with Surrey on these projects could lead to China’s developing a maneuverable microsatel-lite for ASAT (anti-satellite) applications led Sir Martin Sweeting, Surrey’s CEO, in March 2005 to refute those allegations from a technical standpoint, as well as to stress that the projects were fully in compliance with U.K. export laws and regulations.


It is clear that Europe is in the forefront of an emerging global trend toward widespread dissemination of access to remote sensing capabilities, for commercial, civil and military applications. Indeed, as improved imaging capabilities with sub-meter resolutions proliferate, and the advent of mi-crosatellites and low-cost launch dramatically lowers the threshold for nations desiring space capabilities, there may come a day when there is ‘no place to hide’ in moving troops and military assets. (One-meter resolution is good enough to identify types of ships or aircraft on the ground). U.S. Army commanders have long insisted that if Saddam Hussein had had access to good satellite images in Desert Storm, the famous “left hook” ma-neuver would never have been possible; and concerns about ‘enemy’ uses of imaging (as well as communications, position/navigation and timing) satellites is one of the drivers behind the U.S. Air Force’s interest in obtaining anti-satellite capabilities. (It must be noted, however, that it takes more than a high-resolution satellite picture to provide military capability; terrorists, for example, would most likely be better off using city maps for their nefarious purposes rather than attempting to use satellite images.)

While the issues revolving around remote sensing are complex, it is imperative for all to understand that as space becomes increas-ingly globalized, no one country is likely to be able to maintain a monopoly on space technology of any sort. Further, with regard to remote sensing, ‘the cat is already out of the bag.’ Therefore, complaining about the negative impacts on national security makes little sense. Instead, it will be up to stakeholders on both sides of the Atlantic to launch a realistic dialogue about how to live peaceably in this transparent new world.


1. “Hélios 2: Further Enhancing Europe’s Reconnaissance Capability,” EADS Space press release,

2. Nicholas Fiorenza, “Hélios 2 Boosts French Satellite Intelligence,” C4ISR Journal, Jan. 13, 2005.

3. Peter B. de Selding, “France Debuts Hélios 2A Recon Satellite Images,” C4ISR Journal, March 29, 2005.

4. Peter B. de Selding, “German Military Prepares for 2005 SAR-Lupe Deployment,” C4ISR Journal, June 1, 2004.

5. Under the January 2001 agreement, each nation will pay for its national space segment but the costs of the dual-capable ground segment would be shared. See: “Pleiades (Optical Imaging Constellation of CNES),” eoPortal.

6. “Global Monitoring for Environment and Security,” Final Report for the GMES Initial Period (2001-2003), European Space Agency and European Union, Feb. 10, 2004, p. 18.

7. Peter B. de Selding, “Europe’s GMES Mission Fails to Gain Broad Political Support,” Space News, June 19, 2006, p. 10.

8. Wei Sun, J. Paul Stephens and Martin Sweeting, “Micro- Mini-satellites for Affordable EO Constellations: Rapid-Eye & DMC,” presentation to the 5th IAA Symposium on Small Satellites for Earth Observation, Berlin, April 4-8, 2005, p. 3.

9. Peter B. de Selding, “Red Tape, Nationalism Hinder EU Military Space Cooperation,” Space News Business Report, May 2, 2005,

10. “Report of the Panel of Experts on Space and Security,” to the Commission of the European Community, March 2005, p.33.

11. John M. Logsdon, “A Security Space Capability For Europe? Implications for U.S. Policy,” Space Policy Institute, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University,

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