Much has been made of the Starlink satellite internet system operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. It consists of a constellation of some 3,000 small satellites in low earth orbit, and use of it has been granted to Ukraine in its war against the Russian invasion, after Ukrainian internet services had been largely destroyed during the invasion. The Starlink equipment sent to Ukraine was jointly funded by SpaceX, the US Agency for International Development and the governments of France and Poland1.
A few days after the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian deputy prime minister, Yulia Svyrydenko, used Twitter to urge Elon Musk to supply satellite Internet to Ukraine. Within hours, Musk tweeted back, “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route.” Now, eleven thousand Starlink stations are keeping Ukrainians connected to each other and the outside world2.
While the Gulf War is often said to have been the first ‘space war’ (every relatively small military unit had a GPS system), the war in Ukraine may be remembered as the first commercial imagery war. Commercial satellite companies are delivering capabilities critical to the Ukrainian armed forces, demonstrating that such satellites can dramatically assist in the defence of a nation2.
These companies are sharing imagery that only a few years ago was the province of governments alone. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, US and allied governments have increased their purchase of commercial low-Earth orbit (LEO) imagery. These commercial satellites can capture details as small as road markers and can easily spot concentrations of troops, armoured vehicles, supply depots and anything else the Russians don’t want the Ukrainians to see2.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, it hacked the US satellite company Viasat, a communications provider for the Ukrainian military, degrading Ukraine’s ability to act on satellite intelligence. Throughout the war, Moscow has focused its efforts on jamming critical satellites to conceal its troop movements2.
Most people watching the evening news in the comfort of their own homes will have seen some of the imagery from these commercial satellites, especially early on in the invasion, when images of the huge Russian military convoy north of Kyiv were shown almost everywhere. This is the sort of imagery that has been used to target Russian military concentrations. In addition to this, commercial radar imagery is also of use as it can detect movements at night and penetrate the heavy cloud cover that is common over Ukraine3.
Another lesson from the invasion of Ukraine is that Russia’s preferred anti-satellite methods are jamming and cyberattacks, which usually have temporary and reversible effects. Despite the fact that the Russians have demonstrated the ability to knock out a satellite with a missile (the kinetic method), this is not really possible when there are dozens to hundreds of satellites which may have to be targeted3.
Rarely do you see references to government run ‘spy satellite’ systems which are in operation over Ukraine. However, they are there. There are two new satellite systems run by the US National Reconnaissance Office. These allowed the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to see, in real time, the Russian military buildup prior to its invasion, and have subsequently provided a stream of detailed intelligence about Russian battlefield dispositions, troop movements, missile launches, likely strategic goals and more recently, possible war crimes. Their products are being widely disseminated within NATO4, and presumably are also relayed to Ukraine.
With all this information coming from above the atmosphere, Russia has found it difficult to conceal its military actions. While Russia is also trying to exploit the potential of satellites in the conflict, it has limitations. Some analysts suspect it has long been using a small and inadequate fleet of communications and surveillance satellites. These devices, in some cases, rely on obsolete technology or imported parts that are now harder to obtain due to Western sanctions5.
As a spokesperson for the US National Geospatial Intelligence Agency said two months after the Russian invasion, “We’ve been able to be a key part of the how the West has helped Ukraine prevent Russia from overrunning Kiev”6. The world’s major powers are of course aware of the potential of the images collected by these satellites well beyond the invasion of Ukraine. Now governments can no longer take large-scale military action without many people knowing about it.