Canadian officials scoffed last week when the U.S. military said a powerful new satellite that takes photographs from space could be used by terrorists, but a report published by none other than the federal government itself argues the identical point.
The growth of commercial satellites capable of taking detailed aerial snapshots "has the potential to substantially influence security operations and warfare across much of the planet", warns the report published last year by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
"Insurgent forces, terrorists, and military forces with low levels of mechanization and with a willingness and ability to exploit a newly available technology stand to gain the most", the CSIS report notes.
The Canadian-made satellite Radarsat-2 is scheduled for launch in November 2001, but the U.S. government is worried because it can photograph objects as small as a car and because it will be operated by a private company, Macdonald Dettwiler of Richmond, B.C.
The U.S. concerns are crucial because the $350-million satellite was to have been launched by NASA, the American space agency. While negotiations are continuing over the launch, NASA has informed Canada it might not send the satellite into space.
The makers of the satellite say it will be used for such benign purposes as monitoring ice flows and tracking illegal fishing vessels. But the U.S. considers it a threat because the satellite is so powerful the data could be dangerous if it were to fall into the hands of terrorists.
John Manley, the Industry Minister, portrayed the U.S. concerns as a complement to Canadian technological prowess and said the launch will go ahead with or without the Americans.
But the use of high-resolution commercial satellites by terrorist and guerrilla groups was the subject of a warning by two intelligence officials published by Canada last summer. The report was authored by Thomas Quiggin, a former intelligence officer in the Canadian Armed Forces, and Mark Stout, an analyst at the U.S. State Department.
They warned that high-resolution satellites could soon be available "to everyone with a credit card and a computer" and that competition "will lead to more effective use of this new tool by relatively agile terrorist organizations, guerrilla groups and other such combatants".
A group such as the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which mounted violent protests in Canada and around the world last week after its leader was captured by Turkey, stand to gain the most from commercial satellite images, the report says.
Used wisely, satellite images act as a "force multiplier" -- a strategic tool that can help a small group wage an effective war against a larger one because it knows where best to deploy its limited military resources, the report says.
The most obvious applications for satellite images are "selecting targets for attack and planning operations", the authors write. "The ability to see an installation such as a nuclear reactor, hydroelectric dam or military garrison from above is a great advantage to those planning offensive operations against it."
The images would also help guerrilla groups plan the best routes to and from their targets, as well as monitor guard patters and patrol routes, which would help them decide the best time to strike.
The report notes that many insurgent groups have already made effective use of the Internet, and would also be quick to embrace satellite imagery once it becomes more widely commercially available.
Satellite images may also make it easier for international peacekeepers to do their job, but there will be greater pressure on "individual nations and sub-national forces" such as terrorist and guerrilla groups to put the technology to strategic use, the report says.