With The Conflict In Ukraine, Space Has Become An Invisible Front
With the conflict in Ukraine, space has become an invisible front and has been a major advantage to armies on the ground. It's the "first war where commercial space capabilities have really played a significant role," as the head of the US Space Force, General Jay Raymond, put it in an interview.
It's also unprecedented for both sides to rely so much on outer space during a major fight. Gen. Raymond, whose service is the newest arm of the United States military, is vague about the specifics of American and allied aid to Ukraine. However, he does provide some insight into its behavior.
Using satellites, "we use space to help strike with precision, we use space to provide warnings of missiles, of any threat that could come to the United States or our allies or partners," he says. Currently, there are over 5,000 satellites in orbit, the vast majority of which serve commercial interests. However, among these are hundreds of strictly military satellites owned by countries like the United States, Russia, and China.
First is ISR, which stands for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. There has been an explosion in the number of commercial satellite images available to the Ukrainian government.
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At a recent conference, the director of the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency said that his agency had more than doubled the amount of commercial imagery available over Ukraine in the months before the conflict. The chief of the United Kingdom's Space Command, Air Vice-Marshal Paul Godfrey, has stated that "there's an awful lot of nations with military capabilities in space - they're looking at Ukraine as well," in addition to the commercial and civilian ISR provided to Ukraine. Space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) revealed the Russian military's initial buildup prior to the invasion on February 24 and subsequent troop and equipment movements.
Russian military vessels, such as the cruiser Moskva, which was sunk by Ukraine, have been tracked by satellite in the Black Sea. Launches of ballistic missiles have also been tracked by early warning radar systems like the massive one at RAF Fylingdales in North Yorkshire. ISR satellites have been critical for "telling the truth" about the war, according to Air Vice-Marshal Godfrey.
Throughout the war, space communications have proven important. Russia launched a series of military operations and cyberattacks at the beginning of the war, aiming to disable Ukraine's primary means of communication.
Following a Twitter plea by Ukraine's Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov, Air Vice-Marshal Godfrey said that Elon Musk was instrumental in "basically getting the internet back up and operating in Ukraine."
Starlink internet kits, which connects to Elon Musk's SpaceX satellite network, have been shipped in the thousands to Ukraine. Over the course of the conflict, they have been crucial in ensuring the safety of communications and supplying vital intelligence to the Ukrainian armed forces.
Russia and, more recently, Ukraine have both been using space-based positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) to execute pinpoint strikes on strategic targets; in Russia's case, cruise missiles rely on the country's own Glonass tracking satellites. Recent Ukrainian gains can largely be attributed to the introduction of precise weapons supplied by the United States.
Himars rockets, which can travel up to 50 miles (80 km) and are directed by GPS, have been deployed to strike strategic targets far from the frontline, such as ammo depots and command centers. Recent U.S. aid to Ukraine includes the more precise GPS-guided Excalibur artillery ammunitions. In this case, accuracy was key.
The Evolution Of Warfare In Space
As society becomes more reliant on outer space, there is a greater chance that war will spread beyond traditional battlefields on Earth. Admiral Tony Radakin, the Chief of the Defense Staff for the United Kingdom, has warned that Russia could launch strikes on Western targets in space, and both Russia and China have launched tests to destroy their own satellites.
General Raymond has stated, "we're worried about the whole spectrum of threats." He cites potential threats to satellites, such as GPS and communication jamming, direct energy weapons like lasers, and ground-launched missiles.
What disturbs him is that "not everybody shares that attitude," despite his assertion that the United States and its partners prioritize safety and responsibility in space. Militarization of outer space is already well underway.