Intelligence, transparency, communications: the role of satellites in the Ukraine War

As Russia prepared for an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, commercial imaging satellites shined a light on their advancing troops and weaponry toward their shared border. This space-based, commercially-driven transparency provided clarity and helped to combat disinformation before the eventual unprovoked invasion.

Take this specific example: as President Putin declared that Russian units were returning to base on 17 February 2022, commercial satellites captured a newly constructed pontoon bridge that appeared overnight across the River Pripyat, a key river in Belarus less than four miles from the Ukrainian border. This bridge construction contradicted Putin’s claims and as reported by the media, was seen by Western intelligence and military officials as part of additional support infrastructure being put into place in advance of an invasion. 

At the outset of the invasion, Ukraine had no national space capability. But the availability of existing — and growing — commercial satellite services and advanced technology has drastically altered all nation’s access to space and thus modern day warfare. Ukrainian officials and civilians are able to communicate battlefield updates with peers around the globe, preventing the spread of false information and increasing the probability of allied support in favor of the Ukrainians. According to CNBC, “within days of Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion – and following a request for satellite internet support via Twitter from Ukraine’s digital minister Mykhailo Federov – SpaceX began sending Starlink terminal kits to Ukraine and has since sent thousands.” Starlink has extended a critical communications lifeline to Ukrainian forces despite repeated Russian attempts to black out the country both with kinetic strikes and cyberattacks. Starlink satellites flying as low as 130 miles above the battle space beam down high-speed internet access, allowing front-line Ukrainian troops in the hotly contested east to communicate with a chain of command that stretches hundreds of miles. 

Federov also called on commercial satellite companies to share imagery and data directly with Ukraine. The US government contributed through information sharing. When preparations for the invasion began, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) “increased and accelerated several efforts that were underway commercially,” according to David Gauthier, director of commercial and business operations at NGA.  There is now a new hybrid relationship between government and commercial space-based capabilities.  A relationship that is mutually beneficial and is strengthened by its interdependence.

Now a year into the invasion, Russia’s continued unprovoked invasion of Ukraine sheds new light on the evolving state of warfare. The first rather obvious observation is that space is critical to the conduct of modern warfare, whether in terms of precision targeting with GPS-guided weapons, commercial communications or satellite surveillance. Further, the vast amount of commercial imagery collected has created a battle space in Ukraine that is one of the most transparent in history. Moreover, it now appears that Russia’s electronic warfare capability is not as good as we thought. Russian forces have a fearsome reputation when it comes to electronic warfare and they go out of their way to reinforce this narrative. At one point, the state-owned news agency Sputnik proclaimed Russian EW capabilities “render aircraft carriers useless.” That boast seems to be much more for show than for substance. Even the handful of attempts to disrupt the StarLink network have not amounted to much.  However, we should not assume that Russia has used its full arsenal of electronic warfare options.

More ominously, Russia continues its trend of making provocative statements about the international order in space. As the US and the west continues to leverage more commercial satellites for intelligence and communications work, Russia has issued a warning that these may become a “legitimate target” for wartime operations.

The war in Ukraine has taught us that a nation does not need to own satellites or have a strong space program to participate and thrive in modern wars. The ‘fog of war’ will always exist for combatants on the ground, but new factual data sources collected from space can help illuminate, clarify, and level the information playing field and benefit citizens, businesses, humanitarian actors, or military and intelligence officials who seek greater visibility into activities happening around the globe. No longer are governments the sole arbiter of what citizens know. This light can expose the misinformation and misdeeds of nefarious actors, creating more informed and participatory responses by the media, humanitarian organizations and global citizens. 

As the old saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant for democracies. The free world has a distinct advantage given the advanced capabilities of the commercial imagery ecosystem to provide that sunlight and shepherd in a new era of shared awareness. We must leverage that advantage to illuminate and expose nefarious actions and actors. This perspective can lead to greater awareness on the road to shared truth, strengthening respect for individual liberty and collective security. Given that truth is on the side of justice, it is incumbent to provide the global public with the information they demand and the insight they deserve.