At the heart of European satellite intelligence, the SatCen

It is in this building that European Union experts analyze satellite images (Credit: SATCEN)

(B2 in Madrid – exclusive) Whether it is sending humanitarian aid to Kabul, organizing the visit of UN observers to Syria, intervening after a natural disaster like in Haiti, or to monitor the flow of migrants in Libya, all these operations can pass at a given moment… through Madrid.

A white building in the Madrid suburbs

It is, in fact, in the suburbs of the Spanish capital that the European Union Satellite Center (SatCen for short) is established. In a discreet white building, located on the Torrejón de Ardoz air base, to which B2 was authorized to enter, around forty analysts work 24 hours a day, 24 days a week to provide, when necessary, intelligence analyzes to the Service European for External Action, to the missions and operations of the European Union, to the UN and the OSCE.

Analysts at the heart of the excitement 

Even though it is only one of three actors in the European Union's intelligence cycle, SatCen, and the information it provides, is nevertheless a crucial element in all operational decisions taken in Brussels. In the center, the excitement is daily. His “clients”, and their interests, are so diverse that there are few days without an emergency breaking out. Added to this is the long-term work. Monitoring migratory flows in North Africa or further East, in support of the Frontex agency or Operation Sophia, represents a quarter of the center's activity (read: To monitor migratory flows, the SatCen called to the rescue). The workload is equivalent for monitoring the situation in Ukraine, this time in support of the OSCE.

High level security

Upon entering the premises, one is struck by the security measures, with numerous security and protection systems, cameras, etc. including electromagnetic signal detectors to find out if there is equipment emitting, which could transmit sensitive information. Justified protection for the director of the center, Pascal Legai. " I We sometimes handle data classified as “secret” and, even when it is not classified, it is highly sensitive. […] A telephone could be used by anyone to listen to what is being said in this room »

The coffee break… short

Everyone is focused, whether in the operating room or in the IT (information technology) or CapDev (capability development). Here, the coffee break is rather short. No question of hanging around too much. In the SatCen operating room, relatively large and spacious, the teams are organized in islands, of three or four offices, without partitions. At the very bottom, there is the team in liaison with the “clients” and the (image) suppliers.

A crucial step

They are the ones who receive calls and orders from “customers”. It is also up to them to define, with the team leaders, the images necessary to fulfill the order, and to call the suppliers, who can be civilian or military, with whom a direct line is established 24/24, 7 days a week. 7. This step is crucial, because all the work of the analysts will depend on the images on which they will work. Responsiveness is key. For the most express requests, this entire step only takes a few minutes. For other types of queries, for long-term analyses, the process is more complete, more mature…

From satellite to analysis

Commissioned images also arrive at rates adapted to requests. Once the satellite images are received, analysts get busy. The first step is mainly IT. Thanks to computerized systems, an initial analysis is carried out. “ A satellite image contains a wealth of information ". Items defined as unnecessary are " discriminated against ". Then comes the work of man. This is the “real” added value of SatCen: its forty experts.

Human expertise, the real added value of SatCen

Analysts hard at work (Credit: SATCEN)

This is the job of analysts, who are grouped according to their functions. The brightness of the room is increased by the glow of the three or four screens of each of the analysts. The silence is broken only by the sound of “clicks” of fingers on keyboards and mice, and a few exchanges between experts. Here, the English language is essential. A quick glance at this open space allows you to see the screens, where an abundant quantity of highly sensitive information circulates. Some are classified Top Secret. But it's not just confidential information that is interesting. Analysts are therefore relying more and more on open sources: “ Google Earth or social networks allow access to other types of information », often complementary.

Multitasking Experts

French, Germans, Czechs, Italians, Spanish… and nationalities rub shoulders with a naturalness that could shock the intelligence services of any country. The center's policy is to develop the versatility of its experts. All must be “multitask” because having a 24/24 service assumes that everyone is on call at one time or another. And everyone must therefore be able to respond to orders or questions from each customer.

(Leonor Hubaut)

To be continued… the rest of our report on the blog and on the pro

For further :

The example of piracy

Off the coast of Somalia, satellite images make it possible to locate suspicious vessels, but it is only with information from the field that it is possible to know that this or that boat has a metal ladder at the stern. “ It's not very useful for fishing but for a collision, it's something else...» Obviously, caution is required regarding the credibility of these so-called “open” sources, often photos. It is, however, an essential instrument. It also gives the end user a more global vision of the field.

Leonor Hubaut

© B2 - Bruxelles2 is a French online media that focuses on political Europe (powers, defence, foreign policy, internal security). It follows and analyzes developments in European policy, unvarnished and without concessions. Approved by the CPPAP. Member of SPIIL. Please quote "B2" or "Bruxelles2" in case of recovery Leonor Hubaut is a journalist. Graduated in international relations from the Free University of Brussels (specialization in globalization). She covers for B2 the work of the European Parliament, CSDP missions and African issues. Sahel specialist.

Privacy Preferences Center