Role of Space Capabilities in the Russia-Ukraine War

Author Name: Abdullah Rehman Butt      28 Apr 2022     Emerging Technologies

Space capabilities have evolved as a significant element of national strength in this technology-driven world. In fact, the dual-use nature of space technologies and their applications have witnessed substantial growth in both war and peace times over the past few decades. Since the initial exploration of outer space was driven by national prestige and military power, then-space powers — the United States and the Soviet Union — invested heavily in its military applications. Traditionally, space technologies have been used in the military domain for advanced communication, precise navigation, improved Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, and meteorology. However, with novel advancements, these technologies are now also being used in Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD), advanced sensors, early warning systems, and anti-satellite (ASAT) systems. Effective employment of these technologies by the US during Operation Desert Storm in 1990 profoundly impacted the outcome of the war in her favor at all levels. Since then, the era of military applications of space technologies began and the advantages they provided increased their usage in various modern-day military conflicts. As a result, states have started striving to maintain sustained access to outer space to be in an advantageous position in modern military conflicts shaped by emerging technologies.

Because of rapidly growing activities in space and the increasing number of nations venturing into it, space is becoming a congested as well as a contested realm. Apart from developing the capabilities that support military activities on Earth, states are also acquiring weapon systems to fight wars in space causing an arms race in this domain as well. Notwithstanding the existing international legal framework provided under the Outer Space Treaty (OST) — which explicitly prohibits the use of space for military purposes, the US and NATO have formally declared space as the fourth medium of warfare.

A case in point is the recent armed conflict between Ukraine and Russia which has once again highlighted the importance of ‘uninterrupted access to space’ for states in a conflict. This conflict is also going on in the space domain along with land, sea, air, and cyberspace. There is significant asymmetry between the capabilities of both in all these areas especially since Ukraine lost its major satellite ground station located in Crimea when Russia annexed the territory. This caused irreparable damage to Ukraine’s space-related infrastructure and its access to space in the longer run. Consequently, Ukrainian Vice-Prime Minister Mekhylo Fedorov had to appeal to eight commercial satellite firms ‘to provide real-time SAR data to support the Armed Forces of Ukraine with actionable intelligence.’ He also noted, ‘We badly need the opportunity to watch the movement of Russian troops, especially at night when our technologies are blind.

As reported by Wired, currently, there are approximately 50 active satellites in the sky over Ukraine. Most belong to Western private firms launched for commercial purposes. Some of these satellite companies, including BlackSky, CapellaSpace, Planet, etc., have started sharing real-time SAR images with Ukraine and even in the public domain through social media. The data coming from these satellites has become vital for Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s ground attacks. This unprecedented sharing of Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) and Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) by commercial as well as government satellites has caused serious problems for Russia as it arguably denies tactical gains to Russian troops on the ground.

There has been speculation that this may prompt the Kremlin to launch both kinetic as well as non-kinetic offensive tools to disrupt this flow of satellite data. On 23 February 2022, the Director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) of the United States, Christopher Scolese, warned that Russia may attack both commercial and government-owned satellites in order to disrupt communications and GPS systems. On 4th March, SpaceNews reported that an American firm HawkEye 360 had detected continuous GPS interference since December 2021 in and around Ukraine when the Russian troops were moving closer to the Ukrainian border. Jamming of GPS signals in and around Ukraine indicates that Moscow had initiated the offensive in the space domain way earlier than on the ground.

Russia has also allegedly launched cyber-attacks against Starlink (a satellite internet constellation operated by SpaceX) to disrupt and jam their satellite internet services in some parts of Ukraine. On 26 February 2022, in response to the Ukrainian Vice-Prime Minister’s appeal, Elon Musk tweeted and confirmed the activation of the Starlink services in Ukraine to keep its people connected with the Internet. However, on 6 March 2022, stated that ‘Some Starlink terminals near conflict areas were being jammed for several hours at a time.’ He stated that SpaceX was focused on the cyber-defense of its satellites amid the Russia-Ukraine crisis. A senior analyst from Citizen’s Lab warned about since Starlink internet’s upstream link was detectable, it made users vulnerable to Russian airstrikes.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict, besides highlighting the significance of space capabilities for military purposes, has also underlined the growing role of non-state commercial space entities in shaping modern-day conflicts. The rapid growth of private companies has resulted in an unprecedented rise in the volume of available satellite data related to conflict-stricken zones. Governments need this kind of ‘big data’ and imagery to better analyze conflict dynamics. Therefore, many governments, including the US, have become clients of private companies and rely on their data. For instance, particularly for this ongoing conflict, Capella Space is providing its satellite data services to both Ukraine and the US governments. This phenomenon has raised concerns worldwide regarding the direct involvement of commercial entities in any conflict.

The conflict in Ukraine also illustrates how international space treaties have failed to prevent the militarization and weaponization of space. The absence of regulations for commercial entities and non-existent rules of engagement in space could lead to conflict between state and non-state entities. As Brian Weeden warned that satellites of a company selling data to a belligerent state could become legitimate military targets for the other state. This would also add more complexities to standing militaries of nation-states at doctrinal as well as operational levels. Moreover, this conflict is likely to give novel direction to Space Warfare Theory which was previously based upon traditional perspectives of the sea and air power theorists.

The international community and relevant multilateral institutions need to take the Russian-Ukraine conflict as a test case and must work in synergy to fill the gaps in international space laws. Furthermore, stringent regulations and guidelines for commercial entities venturing into space also need to be constituted to circumvent their role in warfare.

Abdullah Rehman Butt is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS), Islamabad, Pakistan. He can be reached at: cass.thinkers@gmail.com

Image Source: Abdullah Rehman Butt

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