SpySats for Saudi Arabia?

Posted: November 11, 2010 in Arms Race, Earth Observing Satellite, Foreign Space, France, Iran, Middle East, reconnaissance, Saudi Arabia

Posted by John B. Sheldon.

David Ignatius, the novelist and newspaper columnist, writes in The Washington Post today that last year Saudi Arabia requested assistance from the US in the form of high-resolution satellite imagery in order to more accurately target Houthi rebels in Yemen who were fighting a border war with the Saudis. It seems that in an attempt to interdict the Houthi’s Saudi air power had incurred an unacceptable number of civilian casualties and so the request for the imagery was made in the hope that it would aid more precise targeting. According to Ignatius, General Petraeus, the CENTCOM Commander, supported the Saudi request but the State Department demurred out of concern that even by providing satellite imagery to the Saudis “could violate the laws of war.

So, the Saudis were rebuffed by the US and yet were still determined to reduce the number of civilian casualties in their battle with the Houthi. Who else might Riyadh turn to for assistance?

Enter the French.

Yes, and please suppress the derisive giggle, the French came to the rescue – at least according to Ignatius and his sources.

The French, it appears, were also concerned about the fate of innocent civilians along the Saudi-Yemen border caught in the crossfire between Saudi forces and Shiite Houthi rebels, and lo-and-behold, also happen to operate a couple of high-resolution reconnaissance satellites called Helios. Within days of the Saudi request to Paris President Sarkozy pried himself from the passionate clutches of the beautiful Carla Bruni and flew to Riyadh to personally arrange the transfer of this valuable intelligence. So useful was this Helios imagery, according to Ignatius and his Saudi source, that within weeks the Houthi rebels requested a truce after being crippled by devastatingly precise Saudi air strikes against their forces, supply dumps, and hideouts.

Now, of course, the Saudis want their own high-resolution imaging satellites and are reported to be on the verge of requesting bids from Western companies. The enterprising French are already offering their services to the desert Kingdom. French defense minister Hervé Morin recently completed a two day visit to Riyadh where apparently the Saudi’s have expressed an interest in purchasing satellites “to develop an autonomous capacity of observation.”

In his column Ignatius writes of the Saudi use of satellite imagery as if it is something new to the Middle East. He writes that the spread of satellite technologies to countries like Saudi Arabia means “that the lid on Pandora’s Box is coming open,” and that these technologies are “changing the nature of warfare.”

What utter nonsense. Saudi is but the latest country in the Greater Middle East to express an interest in acquiring high-resolution imaging satellites. In fact, several countries in the region already have such capabilities (Algeria, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates) and others are actually acquiring and developing them (Turkey, Egypt, and Iran). The interest in, and acquisition of, these satellites in the Middle East is hardly new and compared to the nuclear ambitions of Iran, is definitely not like the opening of Pandora’s Box. In fact, while we’re talking about Iran, its nuclear weapons program is one of the biggest reason many of its neighbors are buying these satellites – they’re even more concerned about Iranian intentions than we are.

As for the claim that these satellites and their associated technologies are changing the nature of warfare, Ignatius should read some Clausewitz. If he can’t digest the Great Prussian, then perhaps anything by Colin S. Gray might educate Ignatius on how the nature of war endures through history and never changes, but its character changes all the time.

There is, however, a lesson to be learned here for the United States. For a number of years now we have been shoring-up the defenses of our Arab allies against an increasingly ambitious Iran, to include a recent $60-billion arms sale to Saudi. We have also been trying to forge a regional partnership with Arab partners to contain Iran’s ambitions. All of these efforts, coupled with the US commitment to a diplomatic resolution to Iran’s nuclear status, are essentially sound enough. So why can’t we provide these countries the space technologies they need to provide critical intelligence and early warning for their national and collective defense? The answer of course is an export control policy that essentially allows foreign competitors to sell high-resolution imaging satellites to US partner nations in the region and beyond.

What’s wrong with this picture?

I know all the usual arguments as to why we don’t. They range from instigating a space race in the region (no such thing, but the space rivalry has long been underway – and we didn’t start it) to upsetting Israel (who have not protested the satellites obtained by the UAE or Turkey) through to the phobia that such satellites could be used against us (never mind Pandora’s Box, this last argument basically calls for the Genie to be put back in its bottle). None of them really ring true anymore and the only ones who are suffering is the US space industry. When the commercial standard is approaching a half-meter resolution why can’t we sell the Saudis and other strategic partners a few imaging satellites?

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  1. […] SpySats for Saudi Arabia? – Songs of Space & Nuclear War […]

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