We’ve suspected for some time that the French and German governments’ refusal to take part in the Iraq war had something to do with their access to independent overhead imagery satellites. Briefly, France and Germany did (with the HELIOS and SAR Lupe programs respectively), and didn’t take part at all. Spain and Italy had some access to French imagery and had advanced plans to get their own. They made a limited commitment. The UK, Australia, Denmark, and the ROK relied on the United States and were, in a phrase that should be better known outside Australia, all the way with LBJ. Turkey didn’t have its own, although it has since acquired a satellite from Italy and it did have liaison staff at the little-known EU Satellite Centre, but it probably had ample intelligence from human sources.
The original statement is in this Ken Silverstein piece (see this blog post of mine from 2006):
“They say everyone else was wrong,” said this former official, “but we conditioned them to be wrong. We spend [tens of billions of dollars per year] on signals intelligence and when we reach a conclusion, the people who spend less than that tend to believe us. They weren’t wrong, they chose to believe us. The British, Germans, and Italians don’t have all those overhead assets, so they rely on us. Historically they have been well-served, so they believe us when we tell them the earth is round. The French have their own assets—and guess what? They didn’t go with us.”
Guilhem Penent, of France’s IFRI and IRSEM thinktanks, writes in the Space Review as follows:
Regarding outer space, France’s main objective is to perpetuate its autonomy and national sovereignty. As sovereignty is the state of determining itself based on its own will without depending on other nations, satellites are, first and foremost, the guarantee of France’s autonomy in assessment and thereby in decision-making.
The decision not to follow the US in 2003 was thus taken by then President Jacques Chirac in accordance with intelligence based for the most part on Earth-imaging satellite HELIOS 1, whose findings were in contradiction which was being said at the UN Security Council. When the war in South Ossetia broke out in 2008 between Russia and Georgia, then President Nicolas Sarkozy, as chair of the Presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU), used images provided by HELIOS 1 and HELIOS 2 to deny Russia’s allegations about the withdrawal of its troops when those troops were actually progressing southward.
This is the first public confirmation, I believe, that the French did in fact stand out of the Iraq war because HELIOS imagery showed that the WMD claims were nonsense. IFRI, and even more so IRSEM, are organisations with the status of something like CSBA in the States or RUSI in the UK, so this should be taken seriously.
Chris Williams, who pointed me to the TSR piece, contrasts the British concern about sovereignty with regard to things like bananas, beef, and birth certificates, with the French equation of it with independent verification technology. He has a point. (So does Dan Hardie in comments there, who points out that perhaps the French could have benefited by worrying more about their influence over monetary policy, something no British Eurosceptic has ever omitted to worry about.) I’ve repeatedly argued this elsewhere.
There are a couple of points here. I feel a degree of contradiction between my suspicion of mass telecoms surveillance and my enthusiasm for overhead imagery. Perhaps that’s just the conviction that however much fuss I kick up, it’s unlikely anyone will burn limited delta-vee to get pictures of me, but you can’t say that about X-KEYSCORE. With more consideration, I think it’s the terms-of-trade in the relationships I described in this post that worry me most of all.
From a British point of view, the deal was fairly simple. The UK would concentrate on signals intelligence and would share everything with the US, and would stay out of the satellite business. In exchange, the US would share back their satellite product. We know that on at least one occasion, during the Falklands War, this didn’t happen. Later, the UK started a major project, known as ZIRCON, to build a signals intelligence satellite. This went overbudget badly, but got a surprising degree of support from Margaret Thatcher for reasons of sovereignty vis-a-vis the US, before being abandoned when the Americans instead offered a share of the targeting slots for their equivalent system in exchange for cash.
But the ZIRCON strand of the story doesn’t cover imagery. It seems that the national interest was very poorly served by this part of the deal – the implicit sigint-for-imagery trade – to say the least, both in Iraq and possibly later in Afghanistan.
Since the 1980s, the cost of satellites has fallen sharply, notably due to the work at Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. in Guildford. The UK had a very quiet test project between 2005 and 2009, and going ahead with an operational system on a similar basis to the Germans’ was being discussed openly by the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills as late as early 2011. Since then, it’s all gone quiet over here…so what did happen to that project? And do we need more Europe here?
I think the answer to that is much more clearly Yes than it ever was with regard to the Euro. The main objection from the UK side (and from Atlanticist Europe more broadly) is that the Americans might not share as much stuff with us. But this makes less sense on close examination. In so far as it is a market-like, bargaining relationship, we would be in a stronger position. In so far as it is a relationship of integration among allies, the alliance would be better off as a whole and might be more allied. In so far as it is a feudal, tributary relationship, it would be less so. (You’ll notice that Penent alludes to this in the TSR article.)
And this doesn’t take any account of the quality of the information received. It seems that the information the US shared with its partners in the intelligence special relationship before Iraq was worse than useless – in fact, functionally defined, it was disinformation. Its recipients were less informed after receiving it than they were before. Even a small increase in independent capability might have the useful effect of keeping both parties more honest.