TORREJON – The small grey building near Madrid has morphed into something from a futuristic film, with intelligence analysts inside feverishly tracking the faraway movements of pirates and rebels.
The European Union Satellite Centre for intelligence at the Torrejon military base is wrapping up its busiest year, and its capabilities are set to expand.
New satellites to be installed will be powerful enough to allow the identification of the exact make of a car that is photographed from space.
"Our activity has practically doubled since last year (2007)," the director of the European Union Satellite Centre, Germany's Franck Asbeck, told AFP during a recent visit to the base.
The centre, set up in 2002, gathers information through satellite images to help the 27-nation EU prevent conflicts and provide humanitarian aid in hotspots around the world.
It can quickly provide information about rebel troop movements, the location of airports and other military infrastructure or track the expansion of refugee camps.
A picture taken recently at the military base of Torrejon De Ardoz, near Madrid and released by the European Union Satellite Centre (EUSC) shows an employee working on satellite images. AFP PHOTO EUSC
The centre has played a key support role to the year-long mission which EU troops began in March to protect refugees from western Sudan's strife-torn Darfur region as well as people displaced by the rebel insurgency in Chad and the north of the Central African Republic.
The fight against piracy in the busy waters off the coast of Somalia as well as conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Georgia have added to activity.
"What we do is totally comparable to what the Americans do, but on a smaller scale," said French General Benoit Puga who became the new head of the French military intelligence agency Direction du Renseignement Militaire earlier this year.
The centre has 25 analysts and Asbeck would like to see their numbers doubled over the next three to four years to keep up with the demand for intelligence.
He also wants its annual budget of EUR 11.5 million to be vastly expanded.
The centre will soon benefit from the use of more modern satellite technology.
Five European nations - Belgium, France, Germany, Greece and Spain - agreed at a meeting of EU defence ministers in November to participate in the launch of the French Musis optical spy satellite. Italy is expected to join the project next year.
This handout photo released by the French Ministry of Defense on January 4, 2009 shows presumed Somalian pirates who were arrested by French soldiers in the Gulf of Aden. AFP PHOTO MINISTERE DE LA DEFENSE
The Musis (Multinational Space-based Imaging System) satellite network will replace the present Helios 2 military observation satellite around 2015, which is expected to need replacement at around that time.
The Musis satellites will be smaller, less expensive and more powerful than the Helios. These are the ones that will be able to identify the exact make of a car photographed from space, for example.
France's ambassador to Spain, Bruno Delaye, said Europe's need for its own intelligence was underscored by Washington's accusation, which turned out to be false, that Iraq harboured weapons of mass destruction.
"The entire world remembers a certain session of the United Nations Security Council where images were distributed which we later learned, to be nice, had been badly interpreted," he said during a visit to the centre on Monday.
Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell's gave a presentation to the UN on 5 February 2003 that included satellite photos which he said indicated Iraq had a secret weapons programme.
The presentation lent considerable credibility to US President George W Bush's case against Iraq and for going to war to remove President Saddam Hussein from office.
14 January 2009
text: AFP / Herve Asquin / Expatica