7 minute read

Ukrainian space power in the current Russian invasion

By Dr Chris Flaherty

Little known and high above the battlefield in Ukraine a Space power conflict has been waged between Russia, Private Companies, and many countries including the United States - all in support of Ukraine. Space power has been fundamental in the Russo-Ukrainian war, and this short article will look at some of its known aspects.

The Space power aspects of the current Russian invasion of Ukraine have manifest in various ways since the beginning of the war, which began 24 February, 2022. However, it was preceded by months of build-up as massive military vehicle parks were created at various places along the Russian, and Belarusian boarders – all viewed from Space.

Some regard the Russian Anti-Satellite Missile test, that endangered every user of Outer Space in 2021, as now having been a prelude to their establishing Space Power Dominance in what would become a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It is known in Russian military literature as, “the Practice of Maskirovka, which involves concealment of forces and intentions, as well as the use of decoys and deception to misdirect the adversary.” (Boston, 2017) Ukrainian use of Maskirovka Practices have likely been superior to those attempted by Russia, and this relates to the better use of Space power.

At the start of 2022, world news was dominated by satellite pictures showing massive Russian base camps on the border of Ukraine, and vehicle parks full of thousands of tanks and trucks. In the beginning, this display of military might on Russia’s behalf, may have served the purpose of mass global intimidation.

Subsequently throughout the year, satellite photography from a plethora of Earth Survey Satellites, that have come online in the last few years which provide Remote Sensing Images, acquired from commercial firms, normally used to provide real-time data to assist environmental and commercial management, even Humanitarian relief efforts, have been put to use allowing news services, public and other agencies ability for roundthe-clock military activity monitoring, and other impacts of the conflict.

Survey Satellites have charted Russia’s war progress, that has enabled extensive mapping and analysis to take place in public – outside the regular official defence organisations that usually inform the public.

At the same time as Russia’s military progress was in full view for all the world to see – the question was being asked ‘where are the Ukrainian forces?’ Significantly, it appears there has been a near catastrophic failure of Russian Space Power. It has been unable to detect the build-up of Ukrainian forces, their positions and composition. There has also been an inability to block Starlink access, and to assert Satellite Shutter-Control over numerous Third-Party Providers and conceal the whereabouts of their own forces.

A key concept, demonstrated by Ukraine in achieving its own version of Space Power, has been augmentation via Third-Party Providers in the Space Domain. Ukraine has likely achieved greater Space Domain Dominance over

Russia, in two ways: (1) Gaining support from Third-Party Earth Survey Providers who have enacted self-imposed Shutter-Control in regards to Ukrainian forces whereabouts, while putting into the public domain satellite pictures of Russian forces’ movement, location, composition and losses sites. (2) Harnessing secure Third-Party Communications Providers such as Starlink. The use of Starlink also saw a Russo-SpaceX Space Cyber Battle play-out earlier in the year; in which SpaceX was victorious! Early in the Russian Invasion, thousands of Starlink terminals were sent to Ukraine. The Starlink Satellite Broadband Service was important in keeping Ukraine connected to the Internet. It is widely understood Starlink was able to quell Russian Electromagnetic Warfare efforts to jam its capabilities in Ukraine, being able to quickly respond, and immediately shut down Russian jamming efforts, with “a line of code and fixed it.” (Losey, 2022)

The Ukrainian strategic Space Power problem at the beginning of the Russian Invasion, despite having a highly sophisticated Space Industry, was having limited capability and haveing a major dependency relationship with United States, United Kingdom and European Union Private Companies, and dependent on U.S.–NATO military support.

Over the course of the war, the end goal currently is achieving the, “three pillars of Ukrainian Space Program” (Usov, 2022), by securing: (1) Remote sensing services; (2) Communications services; and (3) Autonomous capacity to bring this infrastructure into orbit.

Ukrainian Space Power currently lacks a viable, secure sovereign launch capability. The technology option is likely to be solved with an air-launch capacity using a medium-range aircraft. Able to do emergency launches putting in orbit a constellation of micro satellites to achieve rapid battlefield situational awareness and communications superiority.

More recently Ukrainian Space Power was expanded, gaining exclusive access purchase of ICEYE SAR: Synthetic Aperture Radar satellites network capable of imaging locations at night, through clouds, fog and smoke, giving situational dominance over the battlefields of Ukraine, as it has been reported recently:

The Russian Invasion of Ukraine has brought into focus how the two Global Positioning Systems could be susceptible to attack. The United States operates the Global Positioning System. The Russian Federation maintains its own GLONASS: Globalnaya Navigazionnaya Sputnikovaya Sistema.

The Russian global system is fully operational and consists of 24+ satellites. The Russian military has routinely jammed GPS in Eastern Ukraine since the Crimean conflict in 2014. In the current invasion, Russian GPS jamming has continued in various degrees. It was reported that this significant piece of Space Infrastructure for Ukraine was under attack (Howell, 2022).

“The ICEYE satellite, purchased with money raised by Ukrainians, detected more than 60 units of enemy military equipment during its first two days of operation. Russian troops lost armored vehicles worth more than the cost of the entire satellite project.” - (Kyiv Post, 2022)

It was known that localised Russian jamming of GPS signals was occurring in Ukraine, as Russian force’s jammers were targeting GPS satellite signals – intending to prevent Ukrainian forces from receiving any usable signal used for navigation, mapping and other purposes.

It appears however, that local Russian GPS jamming in Ukraine was ultimately having little effect on military operations outside the country and was also “unclear if the jamming has had an effect on Ukrainian operations incountry.” (Hitchens, 2022) However, Russian GPS jamming practices did result in:

“flight disruption cases … recorded where pilots of commercial aircraft had to deal with alerts on the flight deck while flying around the Black Sea, the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, and Finland.” (Petrauskaite, 2022)

At the start of the invasion, Roscosmos Head Dmitry Rogozin stated, “Russia will treat any hacking of its satellites as a justification for war”; further stating, that: “Off-lining the satellites of any country is actually a casus belli, a cause for war” (Reuters, 2022). For instance in March this year, a hacking group affiliated with Anonymous claimed that it had shut down Russia’s Space Agency Control Center, which saw Russia warn that a cyberattack against its satellites would be a justification for war (Lonergan, 2022).

From its start, the Russian Invasion has had a nuclear dimension. U.S. Early Warning Satellites in Geosynchronous Orbit can identify launch of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (Kuo, 2021). The satellites are also sensitive enough to detect the launch of shorter-range Tactical Ballistic Missile used in conventional warfighting. Significantly, weaponized chemical, or low-yield nuclear weapons can be launched, “on the same short-range missiles Russia is currently using to bombard Ukraine, such as its Iskander Ballistic Missile, which has a range of about 500 kilometres.” (Tannenwald, 2022)

It is widely thought that the first indication of an imminent nuclear weapon use would be cyberattacks on U.S. Early Warning Satellites (Kuo, 2021). We may also see possible use of large vehicles, such as mobile Russian Peresvet, convey laser battery activity attempting to dazzle, or blind overhead surveillance satellites as a way to cover preparations to fire a shorter-range Tactical Ballistic Missile carrying a weaponized chemical or nuclear warhead.