Both sides have used space resources significantly in the Russia-Ukraine Conflict, marking a turning point in modern warfare.
Analysis by a US think tank highlights how satellite and space technologies have boosted transparency on the Ukrainian battlefield.
Ukraine: the battlefield under the magnifying glass of satellites
Imaging and communications satellites have provided valuable information on the movements of Russian forces, humanitarian evacuation routes, and evidence of war crimes. These resources have also allowed Ukrainian forces to stay connected to the outside world.
The extensive use of space resources in the Conflict has led some to consider it the “first commercial space war.” However, this advantage has also come under attack by Russia, which seeks to erode it through electronic warfare and cyber attacks.
An example of this is Russian interference with GPS signals, which has affected Ukrainian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operations and OSCE surveillance missions.
New satellite imagery and data show the intensity of the battle for #Bakhmut, with multiple large fires burning in the city’s center and on its western side.#UkraineWar pic.twitter.com/KiuTGSMcZc
— Paul Healey 🇺🇦🇨🇦 (@Paul_TheNewf) April 11, 2023
Russia attacks Ukraine’s space assets.
Russian cyberattacks have affected Ukraine’s commercial satellite communications. One notable attack occurred on February 24, 2022, when Russia blocked connectivity between Viasat’s KA-SAT communications network and its ground terminals, just before Russian troops attacked Ukraine.
As a result, Ukraine turned to Elon Musk and SpaceX to restore its connectivity using LEO commercial broadband. Despite this, Russian attacks on Starlink ground terminals have continued.
Lessons from the Conflict for space security
The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) assessment highlights how lessons learned in Ukraine can be applied to other conflicts and threats, especially in the Indo-Pacific. In addition, the report mentions how civilian infrastructure can become legitimate targets for reprisals in future conflicts.
An additional concern is the use of laser weapons and the unusual behavior of a Russian inspection satellite in GEO. However, it has not been independently verified whether Russia has deployed directed energy capabilities against satellites in its military operations in Ukraine.
Intelligence and Surveillance Satellites in Modern Warfare
Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) satellites have played an important role in Ukraine’s tactical operations. However, it is surprising that Russia has not used counter-space weapons against these Ukrainian assets.
Some experts suggest that Russia may be avoiding escalation in the space domain or that it might be evaluating its own capabilities in this realm before committing to a confrontation in space.
International Implications and the Need for Regulations
The increasing reliance on satellite communications and surveillance in military conflicts has also led to concerns about the security of information and communication systems.
The international community must recognize the importance of maintaining stability in space and promote cooperative agreements to ensure the long-term sustainability of space activities. This could include promoting standards of behavior in space, transparency in military operations, and promoting international cooperation for peacekeeping.
The Conflict between Russia and Ukraine has highlighted the critical role that space assets play in modern warfare. With the increasing importance of space technologies in the military and civilian spheres, the international community must work to establish rules and regulations that guarantee the safety and sustainability of space as a shared domain.