Satellite Executive Felled by WikiLeaks Diplomatic Cable Disclosure

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News Analysis

PARIS — The publication of U.S. diplomatic cables depicting German mistrust of France with respect to satellite technology has caused the immediate dismissal of a well-known space industry executive, the sharp interrogation of an employee of another company and the publication of a letter from the head of Germany’s space agency insisting that German-French relations were fine.

The cables, obtained by the nonprofit WikiLeaks organization and published by Norway’s Aftenposten newspaper, nonetheless are remarkable for how few revelations they include.

That Germans sometimes resent French dominance in Europe’s space industry — a role purchased by a French government investment over 30 years that has far outstripped German space spending — is a truism. That France, with less economic wiggle room than Germany, is concerned about German money paying for capacity that may reduce French dominance is also plain. Such sentiments can be heard at any space industry reception.

Where Berry Smutny, the chief executive of the OHB System satellite-building division of OHB Technology of Germany, went wrong is saying such things in front of U.S. diplomats who apparently thought it was newsworthy enough to be stamped “classified,” put into the diplomatic circuit and later scooped up by WikiLeaks.

Two months after leaving his job as chief executive of Tesat Spacecom of Backnang, Germany, an Astrium division run as an independent company that specializes in laser-optical communications terminals, Smutny was hosted at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin.

According to the published cables, Smutny said at the October 2009 meeting that he left Tesat in part because Astrium, a pan-European company with a heavy French influence, was lifting Tesat’s German-designed technology to benefit French interests. France, Smutny is quoted as saying, is “the evil empire stealing technology and Germany knows this.”

While harsh, this language is not so different from the normal cocktail banter — the Germans disparaging the French, the French the Italians, the Italians the British and so on across Europe.

Still less diplomatically, Smutny calls Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation project “a stupid idea” that wastes taxpayer money on behalf of French obsession with autonomy from the United States, and specifically the U.S. GPS system. Smutny is alleged to have said France wants Galileo, whose civilian ownership has been touted as an advantage over the military-owned GPS, mainly for guiding its missiles without relying on U.S. technology.

While Smutny did not know it at the time of his remarks, OHB subsequently was named prime contractor for the first 14 Galileo satellites.

OHB Technology Chairman Manfred Fuchs asked Smutny to sign a sworn statement in which he denies making the remarks attributed to him. “I have no knowledge causing me to question this declaration,” Fuchs said in a Jan. 14 |statement.

The backing of the company founder was not enough to save Smutny’s job. OHB’s management board, concerned that Smutny’s remarks could compromise OHB’s chances for a second round of Galileo contract awards, agreed to dismiss him in a specially called session Jan. 16.

“We still believe him,” OHB spokesman Steffen Leuthold said of Smutny’s claims that he was misquoted. “But the damage to the company was too great as we think about a second round of competition for Galileo.”

“The General Assembly and the Supervisory Board saw no alternative to this decision in order to effectively avert any further damage to the company on the part of customers, political representatives and the public at large,” OHB said in its Jan. 18 statement.

 

High Resolution

A second topic featured in the Wiki-Leaks cables relates to efforts among some parts of the German government, notably the BND foreign intelligence service and the German space agency, DLR, to promote a German Earth observation satellite system called Hi-ROS, for High-Resolution Optical Satellite.

Hi-ROS appears to duplicate a European capability provided by France, which has been building optical Earth observation satellites for 30 years, leaving Germany to focus on radar satellites. French government officials made no secret of their concerns about Hi-ROS, questioning why the project should have such appeal in some German government sectors.

Astrium’s Friedrichshafen, Germany, branch, meanwhile, already had sold a high-resolution satellite imager to South Korea for that nation’s Kompsat 3 satellite, and was eager for additional work building Hi-ROS.

According to the 2009 cables, an Astrium official described as also being a DLR consultant allegedly argued that a German partnership with a U.S. company on Hi-Ros could defuse French objection to it and secure an export market for Hi-ROS imagery. DigitalGlobe of Longmont, Colo., expressed an interest in the system, mainly to provide backup. The conversations related in the cables occurred before DigitalGlobe’s decision to purchase its own WorldView-3 satellite to meet its in-orbit backup requirements.

“Once the WorldView-3 decision was made, that pretty much ended the discussions,” one U.S. industry said of the DLR-Astrium-DigitalGlobe talks on Hi-ROS.

In the cables, DLR officials are described as adamant that French industry, and Astrium in particular, not be given a role in building Hi-ROS beyond the core imaging sensor. In Germany, the pan-European Astrium is often viewed as insufficiently German for certain contracts.

Astrium Chief Executive Francois Auque told reporters Jan. 12 that, for him, the Hi-ROS story is no more complicated than Astrium wanting its German branch to lead the project.

When DLR informed Astrium in 2009 about Hi-ROS, according to Auque, it said the project already had been the subject of a memorandum of understanding with DigitalGlobe.

“They asked us our position,” Auque said. “As you know, within Astrium we have several divisions and, for one of those divisions, DigitalGlobe is a competitor. We have a range of products — optical satellites from France, radar satellites from Germany — and our position is that if Germany wants to build Hi-ROS, Astrium wants to be the German leader of the project.”

The Astrium employee described in the cables as appearing to act on behalf of a German-U.S. linkup for Hi-ROS — even relaying Astrium internal memos to the U.S. embassy — was “not abiding by company guidance” Auque said.

“We operate under a set of laws, and following German labor law we are inviting the gentleman, who is in Friedrichshafen, to explain what he did. Then we will draw our conclusions,” he said.

The impression given in the cables is one of a German determination to get out of France’s shadow in optical Earth observation, and to assert itself as a major actor in its own right.

On Jan. 6, DLR Chairman Johann-Dietrich Woerner sought to lower the temperature of the debate, publishing a letter on DLR’s website. The letter reads, in part: “Hi-ROS is neither a spy satellite, nor is it a secret project. Technical data about Hi-ROS has been available on the web since 2009.

“France is an important and dependable partner for Germany. … This cooperation has recently led, among other things, to the joint satellite project Merlin, for the study of methane in the atmosphere. Of course, occasionally, on specific topics, we have different positions, different industrial policies and competition between the two nations. The latter point should not lead to the erroneous conclusion that Germany regards France as an adversary.

“For me, this is a reminder to follow up on some calls I have been making repeatedly during the past four years with regard to the implementation of unity in decision-making, accountability, legitimacy, supervision and participation, also beyond the borders of DLR.”