French Imaging Satellites Keeping Tabs on Ukraine Crisis

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PARIS — The French Defense Ministry on Sept. 4 strongly hinted that its own satellite imagery confirmed U.S. allegations of a Russian military presence in Ukraine but refused to say so directly.

In their weekly press briefing, Defense Ministry officials declined to say whether French optical reconnaissance satellites have yielded the same information that the U.S. Defense Department has published through imagery from spacecraft operated by DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colorado.

France is the only other NATO alliance member with its own fleet of optical satellites with sufficiently high resolution to distinguish between types of military vehicles.

Defense Ministry officials said during the briefing that France has captured imagery of the same areas in eastern Ukraine as U.S. spacecraft and has been able to make its own, independent assessment of the situation.

But they said it remains too “politically sensitive” for the ministry to release the imagery. Pressed by a journalist on whether France basically shared the U.S. analysis, a ministry official said: “The big difference is we don’t publish ours, contrary to the Pentagon.”

The briefing occurred the same day as a NATO summit in Wales that was in part devoted to crafting a stronger Western response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and the day after French President Francois Hollande announced the suspension of a contract to deliver helicopter gunships to Russia because of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

The French military Helios and dual-use Pleiades satellites take imagery with a ground resolution sharper than 1 meter, meaning they are able to identify objects of that diameter and larger.

Helios images are classified, but Pleaides photos are not. The two Pleiades satellites produce images for the French military but also for Airbus Defence and Space, which sells them on the global market alongside less-sharp imagery from the Airbus-owned Spot satellites.

Having the U.S. Defense Department publish DigitalGlobe satellite products in defense of a policy objective constitutes a public-relations windfall for DigitalGlobe. For reasons that are unclear, France has not seized on the issue both to buttress its image as an autonomous power and to promote its industry’s capabilities.

One French defense official said it would not be the Defense Ministry, but the French Foreign Ministry that would decide whether to publish Pleiades pictures. Alternatively, this official said, Airbus could publish imagery on its own.