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Satellites Over the Mediterranean: SpaceX Successfully Launches Spain’s PAZ Reconnaissance Satellite

An artist’s impression of the Airbus-built, Hisdesat-operated PAZ reconnaissance satellite. Image courtesy of Airbus Defence and Space.

SpaceX successfully launched Spain’s high-resolution synthetic aperture radar  (SAR) PAZ reconnaissance satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, on Thursday, 22 February, 2018. The successful launch of PAZ is the latest by a Mediterranean country and intensifies the space-based surveillance and reconnaissance competition of the geopolitically important sea.

The launch, which included two other satellites – TINTIN-A and TINTIN-B – for SpaceX’s proposed space-based broadband Internet satellite service, was delayed by one day due to inclement weather. This delay came after the original launch date of 30 January, 2018, was scrubbed.

The PAZ SAR reconnaissance satellite (‘Paz’ is the Spanish word for ‘peace’) will join TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X SAR reconnaissance satellites (both owned and operated by the German government) in the same orbital plane so as to increase revisit rates of these observation satellites over targets of interest to the European Union, German, and Spanish governments.

PAZ is operated by Hisdesat on behalf of the Spanish government, and was built by Astrium España, and then Airbus Defence and Space, for the Spanish operator.

According to the Hisdesat website, the, “PAZ satellite is equipped with an advanced radar instrument designed for high flexibility, and with the capability to operate in numerous modes allowing for the choice of several different image configurations. It will be able to generate images with up to 25 cm resolution, day and night and regardless of the meteorological conditions. Designed for a mission life of five and a half years, PAZ will orbit Earth 15 times per day, covering an area of over 300,000 square kilometers from an altitude of 514 kilometers and a velocity of seven kilometers per second. On its slightly inclined quasi-polar orbit, PAZ will cover the entire globe in 24 hours, serving both government and commercial needs.”

PAZ also carries an Automatic Identification System (AIS) for Canadian space-based maritime domain awareness company exactEarth, making it the first satellite to combine AIS signals from ships in the Mediterranean Sea and Eastern Atlantic ocean with high-resolution radar images, providing a commercial and strategic competitive edge in the space-based maritime surveillance of the increasingly unstable Mediterranean Sea and its littoral.

The Mediterranean Sea has been the locus of geopolitical competition and tensions among the civilisations and countries around its extensive coastline since ancient times, and continues to be a source of competition and security threat in the 21st century.

Today, the Mediterranean Sea is at the centre of the refugee crisis that has seen migrants from Africa, Middle East, and Central Asia take great risks to their personal safety to try and reach Europe in small, and often unsafe and overcrowded, boats provided by transnational organised crime groups who not only smuggle human beings across the sea, but also drugs, weapons, and other kinds of contraband.

Further, and interconnected with the migrant challenge, the Mediterranean coast of North Africa is seen by many European countries as the source of instability and, in the case of Libya and to a lesser extent Algeria and Tunisia, as the source of a growing and lethal terrorist threat with the increasing presence of extremist Islamist groups that have publicly declared their intention to attack European interests and targets.

On top of these transnational threats, the Mediterranean Sea and its littoral is also an epicentre of renewed geopolitical competition among Mediterranean states as well as among Great Powers such as Russia, China, and the United States.

Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt are all jostling for advantage in the Eastern Mediterranean in order to access and exploit the large natural gas deposits recently found there. While hardly a main catalyst for those countries to start space programmes, the new energy security imperatives have certainly spurred efforts by Egypt, Israel, and Turkey to develop and launch reconnaissance satellites to monitor each other’s activities. Even Greece, only recently starting its fitful economic recovery, has announced its intention to create a space agency in order to exploit the domain for its economic and geopolitical interests.

The European Union, especially along its Southern Flank in Spain, France, and Italy, is devoting more resources to space-based surveillance and reconnaissance across the Mediterranean Sea and its littorals in order to try and stem the flow of migrants, smuggling, and contain the terrorist threat in some North African countries.

Similarly, the Algerian and Moroccan governments have acquired, developed, and launched their own high-resolution Earth observation satellites in order to assert and protect their own interests in the Mediterranean Sea, but to also monitor their shared borders as well their borders across the Sahel, in order to counter the Islamist extremist terrorist and insurgent threats.

The United States, Russia, and increasingly China, all have extensive economic and strategic interests in the Mediterranean Sea and its littoral. For the U.S., which has an extensive military presence in Spain, Italy, Greece, and Turkey (all fellow NATO members), protecting the Southern flank of Europe is a core part of its NATO commitments to European security. Furthermore, it is in U.S. interests that no one power be able to dominate the Mediterranean Sea. As a result, U.S. reconnaissance satellites also pass over the Mediterranean several times a day and the intelligence gathered is not only used by U.S. forces in the region, but also among a number of its NATO partners, and presumably, in some cases at least, Israel.

For Russia, access to the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic ocean and from the Black Sea via the Bosphorous for its navy has always been a vital strategic interest, and again its reconnaissance and surveillance satellites are active over the region, especially the Eastern Mediterranean and the Levant given the Russian military presence in Syria (and possibly Lebanon in the near future).

Lastly, through its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is increasingly active in the region as it forges new trade routes with Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. China already owns and operates a number of ports along the Mediterranean littoral, such as Piraeus port near Athens in Greece, and has an increasing number of strategic interests and partnerships – such as with Egypt – there as well. In light of this, China is developing space cooperation partnerships with Algeria, Egypt, and even France, and presumably is looking to encourage the use of its Beidou satellite navigation system as well. It should also be assumed that Chinese reconnaissance and surveillance satellites are also looking out for Beijing’s economic and geopolitical interests in the Mediterranean area also.

The launch of the PAZ reconnaissance satellite for Spain only adds to the growing reality that the Mediterranean Sea and its littoral are perhaps the most imaged parts of the world, and just like in ancient times, emphasizes its geopolitical and geoeconomic relevance globally.

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