From counter-terrorism to drug detection to humanitarian aid, Frank Asbeck directs operations at the European Union Satellite Centre. Niall Firth reports on his increasingly crucial role.
Hidden amid a sea of acronym-rich institutions, the European Union Satellite Centre (EUSC) has managed to keep an extremely low profile for the past 15 years. Yet its role — collecting, interpreting and distributing key information from the world’s satellites for its European customers — has had a profound impact on recent world events. Based in El Torrejón, a small residential suburb of Madrid that also hosts the Torrejón airbase, the anonymous block that houses the EUSC belies the contribution the centre has made. Its director is Frank Asbeck, an amenable and articulate German with an MA in war studies from King’s College, London. In charge since January 2005, Asbeck led its contribution last October, when the group’s analytical skills were called into service following the Pakistan earthquake that razed many towns and cities to the ground. The epicentre of the devastating earthquake, which is estimated to have claimed the lives of nearly 100,000 people, took place in the disputed territory of Kashmir and led to a massive rescue operation to help the people who had been made homeless and were stranded by landslides throughout the mountainous region. Four days after the quake, the EUSC received an urgent request from the EU’s member states who intended to deploy forces in the affected area to help support the local population. The deployment was planned to take place the following week so staff at the centre had to act quickly. Asbeck explained the process that followed: ‘We had just a few days to meet the requirements and so we obtained imagery of the region both before and after the event and we created a geographical information system for the entire area. The satellite imagery was overlaid with high and low-resolution information along with detailed analysis of Muzafferabad airfield which we delivered as a package on the Monday so deployment could go ahead.’ Asbeck’s team also supported NATO troops after the quake by providing data which included a 3D fly-through of the affected area, a tool that EUSC often provides in such situations. Originally created in 1991 to work for the Western European Union — which functioned as the European defence organisation — the centre played a major role in the Yugoslav conflict, in particular the Kosovo campaign. However, since 2002 it has operated as a decentralised EU agency providing geospatial intelligence for the member states as an integral part of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. According to Asbeck, despite bureaucratic changes the centre’s role has not changed that much in the past 15 years. At any one time it may be dealing with around 50 different requests from member states which cover a diverse range of information needs. ‘We receive questions which we then try to answer,’ he said. ‘These are all relevant to European strategic policy which circumscribes what we are doing at the centre, but these requests usually take the form of one of five key threats. These are failed states, regional conflicts, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, organised crime and terrorism. This is the scope of the work that we are carrying out.’ While unable to divulge the centre’s exact contribution to the EU’s intelligence dossier on countries such as Iran, Asbeck conceded that his team has been looking at specific sites not just in one country but in many. These sites have been studied for evidence of where weapons might be under development or where, as Asbeck carefully phrased it, ‘relevant institutions might be working’. In terms of organised crime the centre’s work hinges on analysing satellite imagery to look for drug crops in both the Middle East and Asia. ‘Within the EU the counter-narcotic work is of increasing interest among the member states,’ said Asbeck. The centre has agreements with most commercial satellite companies allowing it access to a wide range of imagery. It also has an enormous archive of information that has been collated over the past 15 years which can be used to provide a rapid-response service for EU operations in little-known areas. Asbeck’s team of 70 imagery analysts and engineers combine satellite imagery from these commercial satellites as well as a growing number of national non-commercial systems such as the European military satellite Helios. This information is collected and processed using sophisticated software and then, depending on the particular request, converted into a format that makes it easy to understand and evaluate. ‘We are not imagery providers but providers of detailed information derived from the analysis of that imagery,’ said Asbeck. ‘We use technology to illustrate.’ The centre has also been heavily involved in the EU’s upcoming Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) programme, its flagship project to monitor practically every inch of the Earth both from orbit and the sea (The Engineer, 27 March). The EUSC has been looking at how feasible it is to use remote sensing technologies to support international humanitarian aid efforts after a natural disaster, and has been working with other agencies, including ESA, to demonstrate their viability. ‘As the only current EU organisation operational in the imagery analysis field we can contribute our experience to GMES and we are expected to provide a central role in the overall security of the GMES programme,’ said Asbeck. Despite having spent the past decade in the shadows, Asbeck expects the centre’s influence to grow over the coming years. In his opinion there will be a noticeable increase in demand for information derived from satellite imagery over the next few years, particularly for EU operations overseas. ‘For the deployment of troops in the People’s Republic of Congo where you don’t have much good background information, satellite imagery becomes essential. In the years to come there will be many more missions like this,’ he said. Just as the demand grows, so too will the centre’s ability to deal with these requests as a new generation of high-resolution satellites are due to be launched which will provide better-quality images. Alongside these satellites, future planned launches of high-resolution radar imaging satellites will aid the centre’s information-gathering efforts, in Asbeck’s opinion. While conventional satellites are rendered useless when there is dense cloud cover, radar satellites have no such problems. The one issue that rankles with Asbeck is the centre’s current level of funding. The EUSC’s annual budget of €10m (£7m) has not changed over the past few years and Asbeck believes that this is not only hampering the agency’s capacity to handle requests but also contributes to its low public profile. ‘Our budget contrasts with the rather dramatic development in the use of Earth observation by other institutions,’ he said. ‘Our capacities are limited by the funding and if this was increased then the effect would be our growing contribution to Europe’s security.’ Funding issues aside, Asbeck is passionate about the work the EUSC carries out. ‘The role this centre plays is vital because it supports matters of life and death,’ he said.