Berlin has launched a new satellite program for its intelligence service (BND) in an attempt to escape US influence in spying matters, Die Zeit daily reports. The project has already proven to be costlier than planned.
Germany plans to spend €400 million ($465 million) on two of the “latest-generation satellites” for its foreign intelligence service. The budget committee of the German parliament (Bundestag) already approved the financing of the costly project back in early November 2017.
The two reconnaissance satellites, which are now being constructed by the Bremen-based aerospace company OHB, are expected to be able to identify and capture images of objects as small as an A4 paper sheet. They are scheduled to be launched into orbit in 2022, where they will be able to keep an eye on “any place on Earth” within 24 hours, according to a “top secret” intelligence document obtained by Die Zeit.
The ambitious project is apparently aimed at making Berlin less dependent on Washington, as the German security services are said to rely heavily on satellite data provided by their US partners.
“The BND must be capable of obtaining information quickly and on autonomously in order to be able to provide independent up-to-date situation assessments,” Bruno Kahl, the head of the foreign intelligence service, told Die Zeit, justifying the need for the new satellites.
“It is sometimes not enough to receive information while depending on third parties, to buy visual imagery at a commercial market or to request it from international partners,” Kahl added.
The German daily claims that the 2013 NSA surveillance scandal could have played a role in Berlin’s policy shift. The fact that a US intelligence agency spied on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone could be one of the factors that allegedly prompted her to choose a more independent political course in the field of intelligence.
Since 2013, the BND has reportedly received a total of €1 billion in additional funding, aside from its regular budget. In 2016, the foreign intelligence was also asked to present its proposals for big investment projects in the field of intelligence. Some of the proposals involved developing new software for internet surveillance, but the Chancellor’s Office eventually opted for a new satellite program.
However, the project, called ‘Georg’ (a German acronym for the Secret Electro-optical Reconnaissance System Germany), has already turned out to be more expensive than initially planned. The BND reportedly said that the construction of the satellites alone would cost about €100 million more than the entire sum allocated for the project so far.
In the meantime, Berlin has rejected an idea of merging the expansive BND satellite program with a similar project from the German Army (Bundeswehr), which is now in the process of modernizing its own satellite arsenal, called the Synthetic Aperture Radar Altitude High or ‘SARah.’ The first new German military satellite is expected to be launched into space this year by US businessman Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket.
Sources justify the need for there being two separate projects by the BND and the army, which have “different interests” and different tasks. The BND satellites are still expected to be operated from a facility run by the German army.
Currently, the BND relies on data from the Bundeswehr, while further intelligence comes from purchasing data from foreign partner agencies. This notably included the joint project “Hiro” with the US. The project, which collapsed in 2010, envisioned launching three satellites 500 kilometers into space. The high-resolution images from the satellites were to be used for commercial interests and disaster prevention, as well as offering extra surveillance capabilities to the BND.