One of the world’s biggest terrestrial stations for receiving and storing satellite images from space is located at the Swedish government-owned Esrange Space Centre in Kiruna. Since 2016, the station has had a satellite receiver that helps China to quickly retrieve information from space. Now the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) is issuing a warning that satellite data from Esrange may potentially be used for military purposes.
The advantage of having a satellite receiver in Kiruna is that information comes through twice as fast compared with other commercial satellite receivers.
Kiruna receivers may be used for military purposes
The satellite receives observations on weather and land conditions. Officially, China claims that they use the data for research and other civilian uses.
But experts at FOI say that China may also be using satellite data from Sweden for military purposes.
– This is not an appropriate collaboration; China is a dictatorship that does not share our basic values and whose actions internationally and militarily are often problematic. In addition, the Chinese space programme is largely military – and it’s difficult to distinguish between military and civilian operations, says John Rydqvist, defence expert at FOI, to SVT’s Agenda.
According to FOI, satellite data that Sweden provides to China could also be used to observe nuclear missiles, naval bases or other sensitive information.
– I definitely think we’re too naive about China’s intentions and the country’s systematic collection of data and technology, through espionage as well as collaborative projects and investments in Sweden, Rydqvist continues.
”Essentially completely militarised”
Outer space has become an increasingly strategic arena for civilian and military use. In an as-yet unpublished report, FOI states that it is not currently possible to determine which of China’s space activities are civilian and which are military.
– China’s National Space Administration is essentially completely militarised. What looks like the overall civilian Chinese space organisation, corresponding to Sweden’s National Space Agency or NASA in the United States, is actually subordinate to multiple departments and agencies that are ultimately under the control of the military, Rydqvist states.
But Stefan Gustafsson, strategic manager at the Swedish Space Corporation (SSC), which is wholly owned by the Swedish government and which entered into the agreement with China, does not agree with the FOI’s criticism – although he says he is aware of the challenges of doing business with China.
He says that if China wants access to sensitive data, it’s easy to get hold of other, better satellite images than those downloaded in Kiruna.
– We feel completely secure with the business we do with China. The Chinese authorities are in charge of that, and our customer is the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Institute of Remote Sensing and Digital Earth (RADI), a civilian organisation. They run these satellites and we deliver the information to them, Gustafsson says.
– These are civilian operations, focused on targets that are of great importance to China. They need to get a handle on their environmental problems, they need to take control of climate mitigation measures and community planning, Gustafsson says.
Satellites in all countries
Gustafsson also says that countries all around the world today have satellites that are observing the earth.
– This is a global commercial market, and the number of satellites doing this increases significantly every year. This has made the market for images of the earth’s surface, atmosphere and seas completely commercial. If the military wants information about any location on earth, they can easily get it from the commercial network.
But security expert Namrata Goswami, who conducts research on space-based defences in the United States, says that the space agency’s satellite antenna has obvious military value. Because Kiruna is so close to the Arctic Circle, the Chinese can gain access to their satellite data more than twice as fast as before.
– This increases their reconnaissance and surveillance capability. So it has a civilian value and a military one, Goswami says.
Minister of Defence worried
”We must realise that when it comes to these types of collaborations, we need to safeguard Swedish security interests,” says Minister of Defence Peter Hultqvist in a comment to SVT News.