by Taylor Dinerman
Tuesday, January 2, 2007
Turkeys air force is planning to spend at least $200 million to buy and launch an electro-optical reconnaissance satellite with a resolution of 80 centimeters. They hope to have it in orbit and operational by 2011. They are apparently not going to impose the onerous local content requirements that have recently bedeviled so many Turkish military procurement programs. This suggests that this is being treated as a priority and the Turkish military is not going to allow local industrial politics to get in the way of their need for broad, persistent, and sovereign regional observation.
As a NATO member Turkey has some access to information from US satellites, and they can also buy imagery on the open market from Spot Image, DigitalGlobe, or others. In spite of this, they want to have their own satellite and later they will surely want to have an all-weather radar imaging system and multi- and hyperspectral capability. Turkey is in a geopolitically rough neighborhood, and their need to be able to keep track of what is happening throughout the region is all too obvious. Space-based observation is one important way that they can keep track of activities in places like Armenia, Iraq, or the Aegean Sea, where Turkeys national security interests are at stake.
For $200 million Turkey may be able to buy a satellite with the resolution they want. However, it may not work as well as expected, because for that price they cannot expect to buy sophisticated pointing, maneuvering, and field-of-view technology. Effective space-based reconnaissance, even for a medium-sized power, depends on a minimum level of space situational awareness. Not only do they need to know exactly where their satellite is at all times, they need to also be able to precisely control where its sensors are pointing.
There is also the problem of communicating with the satellite. Imagery requires a lot of bandwidth: the bigger the antenna and the more powerful the transmitter, the easier it will be for the Turks to download the data. This adds to the systems complexity and expense, and also requires one or more large ground stations. Since they will be using it for regional monitoring they do not need the expensive relay systems used by the US and other global powers. They may find, though, that it will be difficult to gather timely imagery from places like Afghanistan or Central Asia, where Turkey has significant interests.
Turksat, a government-owned civilian corporation, owns and operates three Alcatel-built satellites (with a fourth under construction) that provide direct broadcast and other communications services to Turkey and Central Asia. This has given the Turkic-speaking peoples of that geopolitically sensitive region access to the Turkish media and helps Ankara compete for cultural, economic, and political influence against the other major regional powers such as Russia, Iran, Pakistan, India, and China. The military reconnaissance program, as currently defined, will probably not give their government much, if any, information from these countries, but will instead concentrate on taking pictures of nations that directly border on Turkey.
More and more nations understand that the one place from which they can legitimately spy on their neighbors is low Earth orbit (LEO) and they rarely hesitate to do so. No nation in a zone of conflictor potential conflictcan escape the need for situational awareness, and only observation satellites supply that need. From this fact two things follow. One is that without a highly trained and experienced team of imagery interpreters an expensive satellites information is useless. Any nation that buys a satellite without insuring that it has at least as much money to spend on people as it does on hardware is wasting its money and probably deluding itself as well.
For the last four years Turkey has been sending a number of experts to the European Union Satellite Centre in Torrejon, Spain. There they received training in satellite imagery interpretation and management. By the time the first Turkish imaging satellite is launched in 2011 Turkey will have a good-sized cadre of experts. Since Turkey is already buying imagery from commercial sources, they are building the imagery archive that is indispensable for any nation that wants to make real use of satellite reconnaissance. This program is obviously pragmatic and well thought out. The prestige of owning such a spacecraft is a minor consideration compared to the overall practical need for information.
A second issue that a nation such as Turkey has to take into account is that, with more and more observation satellites up there, nations and organizations will find themselves making ever greater efforts to hide their activities underground or under the anti-satellite surveillance systems know as roofs. This limitation does not mean that satellites are useless: the same problem existed when the only eyes in the sky were propeller-driven aircraft with wet film cameras. It does mean that satellites, and the men and women who examine their pictures, are going to be engaged in an eternal game of hide-and-seek. All-weather radar imagery and multi- and hyperspectral data will help to defeat some types of camouflage, but for Turkey to think that a satellite by itself provides them with a sure and reliable source of information on their region is to open the door to dangerous surprises.
The bright hopes of the early 1990s that Turkey would be able to provide a bridge between the newly independent nations of Central Asia and the West have long since evaporated. The neighborhood from the Balkans through to Chinese Turkistan and, of course, Iraq is over-endowed with angry, violent, and well-armed groups and governments. Turkeys armed forces are engaged in a low-level war against the terrorist PKK, they are committed on a small scale to the NATO force in Afghanistan and have to cope with dangerous dictatorships in Syria and Iran as well as with the complex struggles ongoing in the Caucasus.
Under these strategic circumstances, Turkeys decision to acquire an independent satellite surveillance capability is a wise one. They do not intend to waste their resources on a techno-nationalist prestige program: the situation is too serious for that. Someday, no doubt, the Turks will be able to build their own satellites. For the moment they are using the smart buyer approach. If they stay on this track they will be a model for other medium-sized nations who need the regional situational awareness that only a LEO-based spacecraft can provide.
Taylor Dinerman is an author and journalist based in New York City.