By Rune Ottosen, cand. Politi. Professor, Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences
Bård Wormdal has authored a book of import that delves into extremely sensitive and serious issues, the ambition of which is to ascertain whether or not Norway is in breach of the Svalbard Treaty’s prohibition against military activity on the archipelago. In my opinion he has achieved his aim. With the aid of good journalistic sleuthing, adroit use of the Internet and adept search skills he has pieced together the jigsaw puzzle that all in all is sound documentation that a kind of permanent “state of emergency” rules in the Norwegian authorities’ relationship with the Svalbard Treaty. He employs interviews with top experts on the subject in several countries as a crucial method. He is an adept at persuading interview subjects to open up. Where due to obvious reasons interview subjects keep silent, he supplements with other sources. He got the County Governor (of Svalbard) to admit that use of satellites in NATO exercises designed to prepare for operations in Afghanistan conflicts with the provision that Svalbard shall not be used for military purposes. Yet again proof that the Norwegian authorities breach the Svalbard Treaty in
its use of satellites in warfare in Afghanistan, he found a PowerPoint presentation of the French-Italian satellite project COSMO Sky-Med. For commercial reasons the company boasts of its collaboration with the Norwegian Armed Forces in connection with a pilot project in Afghanistan. The fact that the Norwegian Armed Forces officially declared that the project will contribute to enhanced knowledge of the transfer of agricultural resources in Afghanistan, should not fool anyone into believing this does not also have a military purpose. Wormdal also found talkative American expert sources that were able to confirm what appears to be a clear breach of the Svalbard Treaty through use of the satellites on Svalbard during the invasion in Iraq. The source pulled out after “some people had been talking together”. The fearless Dutch research scientist Frank Slijper on the other hand pulled no punches in his comments, which Wormdal also used in the TV news programme Dagsrevyen feature. The Russian ambassador granted Wormdal a rare and highly critical interview, where he said that Norway is in breach of the Svalbard Treaty. The Sosial-Venstre (Social-Left) party representative Bård Vegar Solhjell submitted a written question in the Norwegian Parliament to the Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre concerning this issue. The minister replied with general irrelevant remarks about the significance satellite activities has for weather forecasting. The Norwegian authorities and politicians bearing the mandated responsibility shirk from debate and refuse to meet Wormdal in an open interview. In that he isn’t given any support from other Norwegian media, they get away with it.
Wormdal’s request was emphatically refused when he asked to visit the Svalsat site on Svalbard. Station Manager Sten-Christian Pedersen had other priorities.
U.S. Air Force General, Merill McPeak, referred in a lecture he gave on the Golf War to the first “satellite war” – that since then satellite technology had escalated, particularly during all later wars and conflicts. Parallel to this the introduction of drone technology has become an important weapon in “the war against terror”, here also satellite communications plays a decisive role. Wormdal met with a certain degree of candour in an interview with Rolf Skår, founder with a background from Norsk Data and the driving force in the development of the Norwegian space industry, among others as chairman and later as managing director of the government agency Norwegian Space Center (NSC). Skår persuaded NASA to establish a so-called Earth Observing System (EOS) from 1996. This resulted in three ground stations for the planned Landsat satellites Aqua, Terra in Longyearbyen on Svalbard and Poker Flat Research Range in Alaska. The station was situated on a mountain plateau in Longyearbyen. Initially the technology was placed in a giant trailer with equipment that was freighted over from the United States, and which barely managed to negotiate the difficult, winding road up to the plateau. Skår deftly avoided all questions pertaining to international law with this subject. That’s a subject he leaves to the political authorities. However, the authorities have – as previously mentioned – silence as their main strategy.
Svalsat played/plays a key role in downloading of data from Landsat satellites. It was military satellites that were first used to communicate with Svalsat. Landsat satellites gained decisive significance
for the gathering and distribution of intelligence during the Golf War in 1991 and during NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, among others through the development of the three-dimensional map. Two years later Landsat played a key role in the Afghanistan Invasion. This is a sensitive issue seen in light of the Svalbard Treaty. Since the opening of Svalsat in 1999 the Norwegian authorities have used the standard formulation: “Svalsat downloads data for civil purposes from satellites in polar orbits and also controls these”. This mantra overlooks the obvious fact that there are military activities connected to this operation. This becomes even more obvious in the next stage of the Svalsat story in 2002. That was when the battle was on to win the contract for the next-generation satellites that are also dependent on fibre optic cables for distribution of data. For a long time it appeared as though the Americans would choose Helsinki due to the good fibre links all the way to the United States. Skår succeeded in organising a joint arrangement where the Norwegian authorities contributed with a long-term lease contract that is to all intents and purposes free for 25 years. In return the Pentagon contributes toward financing the laying of the cables. The U.S. authorities saw this as a win-win situation that they would benefit from financially since the Pentagon would be injecting 25 million dollars. As Wormdal laconically remarks: Yes, the Pentagon had to gain something in return. With the fibre cables in place, Svalsat captured a new major customer, India, which the company had long been wooing. After military skirmishes with Pakistan in 1999 India decided to strengthen its military intelligence with satellite technology and launched its first satellite (TES) in October 2001. The satellite was the first that could provide images with one-metre accuracy inside the heart of Afghanistan. This was great news for the Americans in their preparations for the attack on the Taliban the same month.
Once the fibre technology was in place, Svalsat gained a contract for seven Indian satellites. Permission was given for the agreement, even though it was clear for all to see that this was of tremendous military import. In 2006 an Indian satellite (Cartosat-2) was turned down by the Norwegian authorities on the grounds that the optical images that could be produced would be in conflict of the Svalbard Treaty. Embarrassingly enough it would appear they weren’t aware that similar technology had already been in use for five years without permission having been sought. Not until the County Governor draws attention to this is permission granted, and India was able to continue as before with yet another satellite.
The Norwegian Post and Telecommunications Authority (NPTA) holds formal responsibility for the approval of satellite activity on Svalbard. Section Director Geir Jan Sundal remarked indirectly (and almost directly) that when security politics, high-level politics and commercial interests are so heavily in the picture, in practice there is little a minor inspectorate with scant expertise on the Svalbard Treaty can do regardless. The inspectorate deals with the applications, but has neither the technical nor the legal expertise at their disposal to properly in evaluate whether or not the activity complies with the Svalbard Treaty. Rubber-stamping is perhaps the term that is most appropriate here. When the inspectorate asked for expert contribution, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Justice
and the County Governor’s office, the replies were just as vague as the foreign affairs minister’s reply to SV’s question in Parliament. The NPTA evidently did not want this responsibility and made that clear in the round for public comment concerning a new regulation for the Ministry of Transport and Communications (MTC), which prepared the distribution of responsibility for handling of the formal responsibility for control and inspection of the satellite activity on Svalbard. The MTC has a new set of regulations up for consideration, which in fact it has had since 2002. This slow process can indicate that all the departments and authorities that are in the picture would prefer not to have to deal with the big white elephant that everyone knows is in the room. For the NPTA’s part it ended with the authority concluding in the annual report for 2004 that “it is no longer desirable and of interest to prohibit communication with satellites that potentially can be used for military conditions”. It is to the credit of the book that all significant parties that so desired could have their say and be heard. The author used the method of describing the situation in which the interview takes place and his own and the sources handling of the interaction. This is a good journalistic tactic, even though sometimes the details can be on the banal side. As for instance how the interview object eats apple cake in a certain way during the interview. The core of the matter is that little Norway has limited negotiating room in relation to our most important allied super-power. This is illustrated in the example with the American weather forecast service DMSP, which since its establishment in the sixties has also had vital functions for military activities. There are currently at least two DMSP satellites that gather in data from all over the planet, including from areas where the USA for does not have access to for political reasons. The NPTA applications handling officer surely scratched his head when DMSP applied to use Svalbard. Previously only purely civil satellites had been approved. Now it would appear from “facts on the ground” that the dividing line between military and civil activity isn’t possible to identify exactly. The USA for example is looking to merge the military and civil weather forecast service. In that connection the U.S. Air Force pays to receive the most accurate global environmental data as support for its warfare operations – regardless of where this might occur. The Radarsat system is another activity in the same grey zone. Originally Radarsat was developed to meet the Canadian authorities requirements for data on ground observation for civil and military purposes, especially in northern climes. The satellite was launched in 1999 and has the unique competence that it stores images with the aid of radio waves independent of a camera, which allows the system to operate regardless of prevailing weather conditions. For that reason the American military intelligence service became a major customer during the preparation for crucial operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Judging by open NATO documents it is apparent the Americans are thrilled with Radarsat in connection with logistics for control over Baghdad Airport during the invasion in 2003. The Norwegian Armed Forces have also become a major customer of Radarsat’s services in daily activities and during NATO exercises, and we have to assume with regard to logistics in connection with participation in ISAF in Afghanistan. When the Norwegian Parliament’s Control Committee for intelligence, surveillance and security service took an interest in whether Svalsat had any formal connection to military intelligence, it was satisfied enough to accept that there was no formal ties between the service and Svalbard satellite station. The NPTA admitted in its interview with Wormdal that the inspectorate wasn’t even aware that a commercial relationship existed between the Norwegian Armed Forces and Radarsat that makes the formal ties less important. The Armed Forces receive the data they need, as long as they pay for it.
The entire administrative handling of the satellite activity on Svalbard is a chaotic hotchpotch of different roles where evaluation of competence appears to be sadly lacking. When did the NSC stop being an administrative body, and when did it put a commercial hat on its head? When did the Norwegian Armed Forces’ research institute stop being a body entitled to comment on questions of principle, and when did the role as customer and user of the activity occur? Does this not have military relevance? The unanswered questions are lined up for as far as the eye can see. Bård Wormdals book is a unique source of knowledge on this permanent “state of emergency”. The book is well documented with footnotes, but I would like to have seen a reference list of names.
Why hasn’t this book created an outcry and fiery public debate? I’m afraid the answer is quite simply because – the book is quite simply too important.