Spying from space has lifted the veil over the battlefield, diffusing the fog of war and lessening the utility of aggression.
No one likes to be caught in the act. Homes and businesses use CCTV cameras as a deterrent against crime and to document criminal behaviour when it occurs. Something similar can be said to have occurred in the current Russian invasion of Ukraine. Cameras in space are recording the activity of the war, sharing the movement of Russian forces with all of us, and documenting their war crimes.
Ordinary citizens watching the evening news will know more about Russian troop dispositions in and around Ukraine than many heads of state would have been able to access in previous century’s conflicts. In a 2021 study, researchers found nations possessing reconnaissance satellites were less likely to be attacked than other states. Surprise is an attractive and useful force multiplier in war — an attacker that can invade unannounced is more likely to win a war or major dispute. Spying from space using satellite technology makes it much harder for a nation to achieve strategic, or even tactical surprise, especially when attempting to conduct a larger, more intensive attack.
The number of governments possessing their own reconnaissance satellites remains limited but has steadily grown, especially over the past two decades. This includes SpaceX, a leading private space exploration company, placing a Ukrainian reconnaissance satellite into orbit for the first time in January of this year. Open-source satellite imagery has become ubiquitous, but such imagery only became commercially available in 2000. The quality of satellite images’ resolution has also dramatically increased. Possessing national satellites still provides governments with significant advantages in having real-time access to satellite imagery and offers the ability to direct where satellites look.
The deployment of Russian troops in and around Ukraine has been the focus of intense interest and concern since Russian President Vladimir Putin began his country’s armoured build-up in late 2021. The availability of ‘eyes in the sky’ meant Putin could not achieve strategic surprise. So, Putin did not try to hide the possibility of invasion. Instead, Russian officials capitalised on the prospect of an attack — making demands of NATO and the West — to the point that many observers suspected Putin was bluffing.
He was not — in part because of Russia’s superior surveillance capabilities. The United States and the United Kingdom highlighted the risk of a Russian invasion, in several instances predicting the how, when and where of attacks to the point that Russian commanders were forced to adjust their invasion plans. As tanks rolled into Ukraine from the west of Russia, the annexed Crimean peninsula and Belarus, photographic evidence led to international condemnation and sanctions. Some have credited the widespread availability of surveillance imagery of the Russian build-up and invasion with assisting in both the pace and scale of the international reaction.
But even a generally effective deterrent fails some of the time. Surveillance cameras record violations of the law because criminals are sometimes foolish or brazen enough to commit their transgressions anyway.
Such is the case with Putin’s invasion. We have all witnessed in near real time the scope of the Russian president’s ambitions, attacking Ukraine on multiple fronts, with multiple apparent military objectives and political goals. Russian officials stretch our credulity when they claim, for example, that Russia only ever intended to solidify control over the region of Donbas (on the eastern edge of Ukraine), when we have all seen the photos of long columns of Russian military vehicles stalled on the roads leading to the capital, Kyiv.
The ability to document actions from on high allows the world to judge for itself whether Russian forces are targeting civilians. Russian denials that its forces were involved in war crimes are shown to be inconsistent with commercial satellite imagery detailing the location of bodies that were later recovered after Russian forces withdrew from cities like Bucha. Pictures of Mariupol, taken from space, show a city reminiscent of urban centres in the grip of World War Two. They tell quite a different story than official claims from Moscow.
Defeat in the north has led the Russian military to revise its focus of attack to the south-east of Ukraine. This is due in no small part to the impact of space surveillance on Russian plans. Satellite imagery has allowed international observers to track the progress — or lack thereof — of Russian armoured columns day by day.
Much has been made of the success of Ukrainian forces in interdicting these columns, destroying a substantial amount of Russian armour and killing or putting to flight Russian troops. But successful interdiction requires intelligence; mobile Ukrainian units, armed with anti-tank weapons, such as the US Javelin missile or the British Next generation Light Anti-tank weapons, still require information on the location of tanks in order to intercept them.
Some of this information has been gleaned by RPVs (remotely piloted vehicles), such as the Turkish-made Bayraktar drones. Video imagery taken by Bayraktars and other RPVs has been a staple on social media covering the war. But even drones need to have an inkling of where to look. It is an open secret that Western intelligence agencies are actively assisting in Ukraine’s defence. Utilising various resources, the US has provided Ukraine’s government with timely satellite imagery and intelligence to assist its defensive efforts.
One of the unique benefits of space surveillance is the ability to disseminate information about a nation’s espionage efforts without compromising sources and methods. Unlike a human spy, a satellite can be seen to be spying and still continue to do so.
National leaders contemplating aggression will have to reflect on the effect space reconnaissance technology has had in making aggression more difficult.
Over the past weeks, Russian forces have re-deployed to eastern Ukraine to concentrate their aggression on the Donbas. We know this because it is being photographed. Ukraine’s army possesses an important advantage that embattled defenders in the past often lacked. An attacker could ‘screen’ its movements, maintaining tactical surprise by preventing those in the defence from knowing where they would be attacked next. Today, Ukrainian soldiers already know where Russia is preparing to strike. This can aid the Ukrainian armed forces both in preparing their defences and in taking the initiative to counter Russian manoeuvres.
Spying from space has lifted the veil over the battlefield, diffusing to some degree the fog of war and lessening the utility of aggression. It has made it possible for the world to see and document violence and transgressions that in the past might be undocumented, ignored or disputed. It can be an important mode of protection, deterring aggressors and criminals and aiding in their containment or punishment if necessary.
Erik Gartzke is a professor of political science and director of the center for Peace and Security Studies (cPASS) at the University of California, San Diego.
Bryan Early (@b_r_early) is an associate professor of political science and the associate dean for research at the University at Albany’s Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy.