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[infowar.de] IHT 20.10.01: 2 Countries To Aid U.S. With Planes For Spying; French and British Jets Will Provide Detailed Images of War Zone
International Herald Tribune October 20, 2001
2 Countries To Aid U.S. With Planes For Spying;
French and British Jets Will Provide Detailed Images of War Zone
By Joseph Fitchett
France and Britain will send their spy planes into action in Afghanistan, perhaps as early as next week, to add to the capability of U.S. combat forces to obtain sharply detailed pictures of the war zone, official sources in Paris and London said Friday.
These warplanes, French Mirages and British Canberras, represent a potent expansion in the two European allies' military contribution to the U.S. campaign. The planes, both former bombers fitted with ultrasophisticated cameras, were requested by the Pentagon, a U.S. official said, because "they will be a very useful addition to U.S. capabilities."
The European contribution, disclosed by a specialized French defense newsletter called "TTU," was confirmed Friday by officials in Paris and London, who spoke on condition that they not be identified. They declined to disclose where the aircraft would be based, but they need to operate from a country close to Afghanistan in order to stay constantly over the target area.
The need for European spy planes underscores the role of high-tech intelligence in U.S. plans for highly mobile forces to intercept Taliban units and guerrillas associated with the accused terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Plans to use the planes were divulged as officials said the U.S. government had moved to control access to global high-tech intelligence about Afghanistan by buying exclusive rights to all commercial satellite imagery of the country.
Although the U.S. military has better-quality pictures from its own satellites and other sources, the Pentagon reportedly wants all the data it can get. In addition, Washington wants to prevent its foes on the ground in Afghanistan from getting satellite information about the basing of U.S. helicopters or other forces.
Media access will suffer from being denied access to satellite data normally available commercially from Space Imaging, the U.S. company that operates the world's only commercial spy satellite.
By buying prints from Space Imaging or taking them from Web sites such as Globalsecurity.com, a U.S. defense consulting firm that specializes in satellite imagery analysis, outside experts could obtain a measure of independent evidence about the U.S. official version of military events, including incidents in which civilian targets are bombed by mistake.
To succeed with its high-mobility tactics in tracking down even small enemy units in Afghanistan, the United States will need dense and detailed terrain coverage fusing pictures from a range of sources. Satellite cameras, spy planes, remote-controlled drones, and sophisticated ground sensors provide the big picture of areas covering several hundred square miles. Computer-assisted analysis of the digitized information can detect subtle changes that indicate enemy movements.
A special role in this overall approach has been assigned to European photo-reconnaissance planes, including France's Mirage IV-P and Britain's Canberra PR-9. Both aircraft were originally long-range bombers designed to carry nuclear bombs deep into the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In the 1980s, they were converted into surveillance aircraft, and their pilots can ply back and forth over the same target area producing a picture that shows changes almost from minute to minute or gradually producing a picture of an area 100 miles square (670 square kilometers).
The Canberras, flying out of missile range at 50,000 feet (15,245 meters), take pictures of "unbelievable clarity," an expert said, that can match military satellites' quality.
A key advantage of the Mirage IV-P is its ability to fly very low, hugging the nape of the earth sometimes only 100 feet (30 meters) below the pilot. It can take pictures that include sideways views into mountainsides to disclose caves hidden from cameras in aircraft flying at higher altitudes. Despite flying at low altitudes, the Mirage flies so fast that it is difficult for ground forces to shoot it down.
In gaining control of satellite imagery of Afghanistan, the Bush administration has been careful to avoid potentially embarrassing legal entanglements. It could have simply invoked its legal right to exercise "shutter control" over combat areas and seized all images deemed potentially damaging. That order was not given.
Instead, 10 days after the air strikes started, the administration signed a commercial contract to buy control of the satellite and its images of Afghanistan and some surrounding areas. The cost has not been disclosed, but it is estimated at several hundred million dollars already. The pictures cost up to $200 per square mile, with an extra $3,000 charge for quick turn-around times to expedite delivery.
By choosing the commercial approach, the administration has obtained what amounts to a ban that seems unlikely to be challenged by world media as a breach of press freedom.
"If they had imposed shutter control, it is entirely possible that news organizations would have filed a lawsuit against the government, arguing prior restraint censorship," according to John Pike, head of Global-security.com. "Prior restraint," meaning advance censorship, challenges the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment guarantees of a free press and free speech.
Space Imaging, headquartered in Colorado, launched the world's first commercial spy satellite in 1999. Known as Ikonos, it provides pictures offering resolution of 1 meter, meaning that objects one-meter long can be identified. "You can count the cars in a parking lot or see a file of men moving or a line of bodies," according to Mr. Pike.
Russia, France and Israel also have spy satellites, but these governments have political motives to refrain from challenging the Pentagon's public picture of developments on the ground.
Some relief agencies can be expected to get access to the information derived from satellites, including the commercial one now controlled by the Pentagon.
The U.S. military has at least six imaging satellites in orbit, including four from the most sophisticated series, called Keyhole, that reportedly can take pictures five or six times better than those of Ikonos.
However, Ikonos's output can help augment the U.S. picture of Afghanistan.
The Pentagon's motives in buying Ikonos's output could include preventing leaks of politically embarrassing evidence about Afghan civilian casualties or other mishaps in the U.S. military campaign. As noted in the British newspaper, the Guardian, which uncovered the satellite deal, the Pentagon sought the contract with Space Imaging on Oct. 11, the day after the first reports of civilian casualties. The Guardian, a left-leaning daily, said that the Pentagon made the contract retroactive, suggesting that it wanted to cover up evidence of damage caused by bombs that went astray.
Ironically, the Pentagon's concerns about commercial satellites are confined to the United States, the only country with a functioning company in the field. A potential Russian competitor, called Cosmos, has never entered the business. France, which sells less detailed satellite images for farming and urban planning, fought bitterly but unsuccessfully against the Clinton administration's decision in 1994 to authorize the sale of commercial satellite images with high resolution, arguing that such detailed images would only interest military planners or terrorists.
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