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New Satellite Blues and the war in Ukraine – is the UK ready to capitalize on commercial satellite imagery?

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The war in Ukraine has brought the use of commercial satellite imagery to the fore with near real-time images being viewed by millions of people on news and social media channels.  Those same images have been processed, exploited, and disseminated by intelligence agencies.  Robert Muggah, co-founder of the SecDev Group has said that ’publicly available satellite images are a defining feature of 21st century warfare’.  How the world has changed since AC/DC released New Satellite Blues at the turn of the century;  what was once private and guarded is now in plain sight.

This article examines the use of commercial satellites during the war in Ukraine and whether the UK can capitalise on this opportunity.  UK Defence and the Defence Space enterprise is not new to accessing commercial imagery. But it had, until Ukraine, likely not fully realised the immediate benefits that commercial imagery brings, nor appreciated the demand from all three Services that is likely to increase significantly.  Does the MOD have a workforce in place that can cope with the current volume of work as well as increase generated by the arrival of multiple satellites and constellations operating in low earth orbit (LEO)? Is the MOD’s procurement process configured to exploit and support a hybrid commercial-military space construct that can deliver near real time imagery to the battlefield whilst supporting the broader needs of the intelligence community?

Additionally, without investment in a robust intelligence architecture with the ‘end user’ in consideration, will front-line customers be able to process, exploit and disseminate the amount of raw data now being generated? Whither Capability Development? The ‘own-collaborate-access’ approach to space, as outlined in the Integrated Review, where the United Kingdom will own some capabilities – investing in the development of sovereign capabilities and exploiting the UK space industries sizeable experience in spacecraft design; collaborate with others across civil, commercial, and other militaries from allies and partner nations, and finally gain access to other capabilities through deals and relationships, is a perfect fit for this scenario.  Is there such a thing as sovereign commercial access?  Can the MOD adopt a ‘UK first’ approach when it comes to accessing imagery from our own constellations or should we continue to rely on and work with our 5 Eyes, NATO, or AUKUS relationships?

‘The scale of cooperation between the US and a non-NATO partner is unprecedented.  A lot of ‘real time’ intelligence shared in terms of things that could be used for specific targeting of Russian forces – and this includes commercial satellite images.’1

The size and pace of UK space

The RAF has been involved with space for several decades with the ballistic missile early warning radar at RAF Fylingdales perhaps being the best-known example.  Although No 1001 Signals Unit’s work at RAF Oakhanger is perhaps more relevant to this article.  In 2013, UK air and space doctrine went ‘joint’ with the publication of JDP0-30.  Almost 10 years later, that doctrine remains extant, and describes space as ‘an enabling environment and, increasingly, as an operating environment’.

The last two years have seen a flurry of activity as far as organisation, investment and structure is concerned.  The MOD’s Space Directorate stood up in February 2020 and 14 months later, the RAF’s Space Command was formed.  Earlier this year, we saw the publication of the UK’s first Defence Space Strategy aimed at ensuring the UK ‘becomes a meaningful player in space’.2 Comments echoed in the National Space Strategy.  Events in Ukraine may well give the UK’s newest operational command the chance to take centre stage.

There’s satellite data and there’s satellite data that makes a difference

‘The economic, political, and humanitarian consequences of the war in Ukraine already are too high to stand on the side lines.  If you can help us, please provide the SAR data that actually makes a difference’3

On 1 March, Ukrainian-based EOS Data Analytics (EOSDA) asked a number of commercial firms as well as several space agencies to provide current/live data ‘to provide awareness of enemy troops and equipment during the night’, mentioning their particular interest in locating Russian refuelling activity.  Max Polyakov, EOSDA’s founder and CEO, said it would provide ‘actionable intelligence’ to those resisting the Russian invasion as well as imagery to assist military and humanitarian purposes.

It is probably worth spending a little time on some of the capabilities commercial satellites can bring to the party.  Earth observation (EO) satellites provide optical data and view the world as the human eye sees it, which limits their ability to observe when it’s cloudy and at night.  When asking the West for help, Polyakov referred to optical imagery as outdated but useful for PR purposes and as evidence of war crimes.  Satellites equipped with synthetic aperture radar (SAR) can operate at day or night, regardless of weather.  It was SAR data that Polyakov was referring to when he expressed a particular interest in Russian refuelling activity.

Another important factor to consider is the level of resolution (the distance represented by a single pixel on an image).  Most commercial satellite imagery falls between 2 and 5 metres but there are companies that can offer sensors with a significantly higher resolution of 30 to 70cm – once the premise of military-funded and built spacecraft; each increase yielding an exponential amount of detail.  Finally, we are also interested in how often a satellite will return to the same area of interest or target in a given time period – the revisit rate.  The nirvana is to provide high resolution images that can penetrate cloud cover and that are supported by a high revisit rate.

I feel the need…the need for mass and agility

The US defence and intelligence community is not wholly dependent on the commercial satellite market, but it already had short term contracts in place with Maxar, Planet, and BlackSky that were of use to monitor the build-up of Russian forces.  After revealing that he would be doubling the purchases of EO imagery, David Gauthier, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) Director of Commercial and Business Operations, talked of the need ‘to bring new commercial options to the fight almost instantly’.  The NGA saw its focus quickly shift to obtaining SAR images.  Gauthier said that a commercial SAR capability was ‘pushed into service months earlier than planned’ and he is an advocate of pushing ‘good enough solutions’ straight into operational service.  The utilisation of commercial imagery whilst not providing ‘owned’ mass, should still be seen as a force multiplier greatly increasing the number of sources of data available to Defence.

‘The role of commercial imagery, the ability to apply AI machine learning against that data, and the things you can do with 3-D are playing a big role in supporting current missions.’4

Capability Development – there’s agility and there’s space agility (and people of course)

The UK’s Space Defence Strategy tells us there is a window of opportunity for UK Defence to do things differently in space through development of fast-paced, emerging technologies.5 It hammers home the point by mentioning the word acquisition on 51 separate occasions.  It also says that the UK will improve the process of integrating intelligence products to attain information advantage.6 Though where will the trained personnel come from and is there enough investment in the digital architecture to support and pass the data?

Finally, we are also told that we will become more resilient through close integration of allied capability as well as commercial satellite communication providers.7 What is lacking is any sense of time behind each statement; ‘we will become’ is too open ended to draw any meaningful conclusions.  To put this in a national context, UK Defence will have to wait until 2025 for Project Oberon to deliver a national SAR constellation into orbit – a six year gestation period.

The ‘own-collaborate-access’ approach outlined in the Integrated Review is a good fit in terms of acquiring access to commercial satellite capability.  If we follow the American model, are we prepared to pay for and exploit ‘good enough’ solutions to support the end users? This is surely going to challenge the UK’s acquisition mindset, especially when considering the size of costs per day being bandied around.  The National Reconnaissance Office has just let 10 years contracts with Maxar, BlackSky and Planet worth over £3 billion.  The MOD’s entire space budget over the same period is £6.4 billion; much of that is given over to the Skynet 6 programme.  America’s Space Force is 2 and a half years older than our own Space Command, but in April this year, it released its Commercial Integration Strategy.  This strategy is meant to address end-user needs, foster an integrated/US Government approach, and exploit commercial pathways to mitigate any gaps. Does the UK need to follow suit?

Furthermore, time spent ‘doing space’ since the Cold War has still failed to deliver the one capability that underpins everything that the UK space effort is attempting to do – a professional and sustainable space workforce.  The RAF has spent over 100 years making sure its personnel are ‘air minded’, that must be repeated for space; careers have to be forged and posts filled by individuals who live and ‘breathe’ the technology, mechanics, and physics of space.  Talk of a Space Academy is encouraging; without it it is difficult to envisage how UK Defence will generate and more importantly sustain, the people and skills required to move forward.8

Do we have a problem Houston?

Despite its obvious success, there are several concerns surrounding the use of commercial satellite imagery.  Perhaps first and foremost, can we be sure in the interconnected sharing world who actually controls the data? Planet’s boast that theirs is a commercial unclassified product which allows for ‘immediate shareability across enterprises or allies’ probably strikes fear into the hearts of military intelligence analysts.  Equally, if everyone has access to the same information, how do you maintain your edge?  Is that the bailiwick of sovereign AI and machine learning capabilities? These problems further raise the case for a dedicated space workforce.

We must also acknowledge that geospatial misinformation and disinformation are risks. Images can be doctored and the use of deep fakes or simple photoshopping is a growing concern.  Just because satellite images are inherently expensive, it doesn’t always mean they can be trusted.

Dual-use technology is a commonly used term when discussing space.  Commercial satellites are often marketed as climate intelligence platforms but can also be used for ‘less advertised’ national security purposes.  Being part of the military kill chain doesn’t tend to feature on many marketing messages – it doesn’t tend to sell well!  If commercial imagery is being used for military purposes, are those satellites now legitimate military targets? And what about the companies themselves? Elon Musk’s efforts to deploy Starlink communication satellites and ground stations to Ukraine have angered Russia’s space chief, Dimitry Rogozin.  China has also weighed in on the subject of Starlink, stating that it would need to use a combination of soft and hard kill methods to disable the constellations in any future conflict.

Finally, as if the commercial market isn’t already busy taking orders, NATO has entered the building.  Its recent invitation for commercial companies to provide it with imagery was somewhat surprising, seeing as the US NGA already provides the organisation with imagery and analytics.  That said, the move is certainly in line with NATO’s 2022 Alliance Space Policy and the language and terminology used by NATO is very similar to the UK’s own; using ‘trusted commercial space providers’ to meet their requirements in the most efficient and effective way possible.

Conclusion

Space is back on the scene, it has moved from the unseen to the public eye in a matter of months with a fervour that could easily rival the early years of the space race between the US and Russia, only this time there are many more actors in play.  The war in Ukraine has provided an opportunity for the commercial satellite market to dominate social media and news channels, filling in the gaps left by the military accounts.  The companies involved responded to Ukraine’s direct request for imagery.  They have demonstrated incredible agility in providing EO and SAR data to support the war effort; sometimes via NGA contracts, sometimes directly to EOSDA.  This is not the end.  We are promised more LEO constellations with greater resolution and sensors that will even help locate ships at sea that attempt to ‘go dark’ by turning off their identification systems.

In many respects, obtaining (and paying for…) commercial satellite imagery is the easy part.  It is of little use until the intelligence community has processed, exploited, and disseminated it to the end users.  Here too, we are seeing the rapid transfer of intelligence to end users where control and ownership of the raw data almost seems of secondary concern in generating a first to know advantage.  An intelligence community where everyone knows everything seems a very peculiar place to be.

The war in Ukraine has certainly dropped a few more ‘things to do’ in the UK’s Space Command inbox.  On the 14th of April, Air Vice Marshal Paul Godfrey announced the UK Space Operations Centre had tracked more ballistic missiles in the previous six weeks than in the whole of last year.9 That said, the MOD’s Space Directorate and the RAF-led Joint UK Space Command still occupy a niche area of UK Defence, both in terms of presence and personnel.  We are heading in the right direction, albeit from a relatively low starting point.

The UK’s Defence Space Strategy and the ‘own-collaborate- access’ model gives us everything we need to do to enter meaningful relationships with commercial satellite providers and develop a hybrid space capability.  What is not clear is the pace at which these words will translate into deeds.  It remains to be seen whether we are prepared to see ‘good enough’ solutions enter service.  The final and most important element is people.  We are asking space-minded people from across all three Services to live and thrive in an air-minded organisation.  Without a dedicated and sustainable professional space cadre, the push to be a ‘leading space power’ as envisaged by the SoS may never truly materialise.  By all means embrace commercial satellite imagery but deliver the tools and people to make it worthwhile.

Phil Clare

Phil Clare is a former RAF Logistics Officer. He has over 30 years experience of single and joint service environments, as well as operational experience that spans Op GRANBY to HERRICK.

 

Footnotes

  1. US intelligence-sharing helps Ukraine to delay Russian invaders (David Charter, The Times, 27 April 2022)
  2. UK Defence Space Strategy, UK MOD, February 2022, 4.
  3. Max Polyakov, COE of EOS Data Analytics 1 March 2022.
  4. Anonymous senior executive with satellite imagery company, Defense One 28 April 2022.
  5. UK Defence Space Strategy, UK MOD, February 2022, 14 (1.16).
  6. Ibid 22 (4.1).
  7. Ibid 23 (4.5).
  8. Ibid 31 (6.7d(3)).
  9. @RoyalAirForce tweet sent 14 April 2022.

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