- Author, Jonathan Beale
- role, Defense Correspondent, BBC News
The war in Ukraine underscored the growing importance of space for armies on the ground.
In an interview with the BBC, the head of the US space force, General Jay Raymond, describes it as “the first war where commercial space capabilities really played a significant role”. It is also the first major conflict in which both sides have become so dependent on space.
General Raymond – whose service is the newest branch of the US armed forces – avoids giving specific details about how the US and its allies have helped Ukraine.
But it gives a clear indication of what they did. “We use space to strike with precision, we use space to provide missile warnings about any threat that might come to the United States or our allies or partners,” he says.
There are already more than 5,000 satellites in space – most are commercially operated.
But among them are hundreds of dedicated military satellites – the US, Russia and China have the most.
Ukraine has none. But it has received considerable help from the West in several ways.
The first is the provision of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance – or ISR.
Ukraine has had access to unprecedented amounts of commercial satellite imagery.
At a recent conference, the director of the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency said the agency had more than doubled the commercial imagery available over Ukraine as the war drew closer.
Air Vice-Marshal Paul Godfrey, who heads Britain’s Space Command, says that in addition to the commercial and civilian ISR provided to Ukraine, “a very large number of nations with military capabilities in space are also interested in Ukraine”.
Space-based ISRs have helped identify the initial build-up of Russian forces before the February 24 invasion and the movements of troops and military equipment since then. The satellites have been used to track Russian warships in the Black Sea, including the cruiser Moskva, which was sunk by Ukraine.
Early warning radars – such as the giant radar at RAF Fylingdales in North Yorkshire – have also tracked the launch of ballistic missiles.
Air Vice Marshal Godfrey says the ISR satellites were also key to “telling the truth” about the war.
He gives the example of the Buca massacre, near Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. According to him, Russian claims that the bodies of dead civilians were already on the streets when they arrived were contradicted by time-stamped satellite images showing the opposite.
Media organisations, including the BBC, have also benefited from unprecedented access to commercial satellite imagery, which can be used to confirm claims on the ground. This includes identifying mass graves or Ukraine’s recent attack on a Russian air base in Crimea, Ukraine’s southern peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.
Early warning radars were also able to track the launch of ballistic missiles.
The US is also discussing in detail the installation of other giant radars in Britain to keep an eye on what is happening in space.
And recently, Ukrainian volunteers raised enough money to buy an entire satellite to help the country’s military detect Russian targets.
The Sar (Synthetic Aperture Radar) satellite from the Finnish company ICEYE proved to be extremely effective – during the first two days of its use, the damage caused to the Russian army exceeded 16 million dollars, which is more than the cost of purchasing the satellite. according to Ukrainian officials.
Space was also crucial for communication throughout the war.
At the start of the war, Russia carried out a series of military and cyber attacks to disable Ukraine’s main communication hubs.
Air Vice Marshal Godfrey credits Elon Musk with “essentially restoring the Internet to Ukraine,” thanks to a Twitter call from Ukrainian Digital Transformation Minister Mykhailo Fedorov.
Elon Musk has shipped thousands of Starlink internet kits to Ukraine that provide access to SpaceX’s constellation of satellites in orbit.
These sets were essential in providing the Ukrainian military with secure communications and situational awareness throughout the war. I saw them being used from Ukrainian commando bunkers in eastern Donbas.
Both Russia and, more recently, Ukraine, have relied on space-based positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) systems to carry out precision strikes on key targets, cruise missiles from Russia using its own Glonass positioning satellites to find their targets.
For Ukraine, adding to its arsenal of American-supplied precision weapons has been key to the country’s recent progress.
Himars missiles, which have a range of up to 80 km and are GPS-guided, have been used to destroy key targets such as ammunition depots and command centers far behind the front lines.
Recently, the US supplied Ukraine with GPS-guided Excalibur artillery shells, which are more accurate than so-called “dumb” munitions. Precision made the difference.
The Future of Space Warfare
The growing use of space raises fears that conflicts will extend beyond land, sea and air.
Russia and China have both conducted launch tests of their own satellites, and Admiral Tony Radakin, Britain’s chief of defence, recently warned that Russia could launch strikes against Western targets in space.
General Raymond states that “there are a number of threats that concern us”. He cites the jamming of GPS and communications, direct energy weapons such as lasers or ground-launched missiles that can be used to target satellites.
He says the US and its allies want to ensure there is always safe and responsible behavior in space, but adds: “What worries me is that not everyone shares that view”.
In reality, the weaponization of space is well underway.