OSINT IMINT: Commercial Space Eyes over Ukraine and Russia

(Caption for photo at top of the post: “BlackSky has been publishing its satellite imagery and analysis of Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. This April 10 image details damage to Dnipro International Airport, with algorithms highlighting aircraft on the airfield. Credit: Maxar Technologies”.)

All those images we’ve been seeing on television. First from Defense One:

As Satellite Images Reshape Conflict, Worries Mount About Keeping Them Safe

Radio data collected from space is the next frontier.

By Patrick Tucker

Technology Editor

If Russia is defeated in its war against Ukraine, it will be thanks in no small part to publicly available satellite images. Pictures of Russian military movements and actions have helped mount defenses, expose Russian falsehoods and war crimes, and galvanize Ukrainian allies. But precisely because the recent explosion in space-generated intelligence is proving so valuable, industry and military officials are concerned about potential adversaries’ growing abilities to target satellites [emphasis added].

In the leadup to the invasion, images bolstered leaders’ credibility as they issued increasingly dire warnings. After it happened, the photos helped policy makers in Washington, Brussels, and elsewhere marshal support for sanctions on Russia.

“You’re in the middle of a war where a new piece of technology changes the calculus of decision,” Planet co-founder and CSO Robbie Schingler told Defense One. “It wasn’t just ‘Trust us, this is happening.’ Everyone could see it. You’re on a common operating picture” that enabled leaders around the world to “come up with their own decision making processes internally in their countries and then be able to act in unison when it matters.”.. 

Unlike military satellites that produce largely classified imagery, private-sector providers have much more freedom to release anything they like. 

“The shareability of commercial imagery has always been one of the key features,” Tony Frazier, Maxar’s executive vice president and general manager of public sector earth intelligence, said at the GEOINT conference here this week.

The availability of satellite imagery they could share and talk about made it easier for the Biden administration to rapidly declassify their analysis of Russia’s intentions and actions, said Robert Moultrie, the defense undersecretary for intelligence [emphasis added]

The U.S. intelligence community is entering a new era in which publicly available intelligence is given more weight and in which the U.S. government is more transparent about what it sees, particularly about Russia and China. Moultrie called the U.S. effort to warn the public about the impending invasion “a case study for us. And it really is one that’s going to really pave the way for the future.”

Some military leaders want to move even faster. Gen. Richard Clark, who leads U.S. Special Operations Command, said too much information remains classified, in part because it’s too easy for the national-security community to reflexively mark it as secret [emphasis added]

But declassification and the wide availability of satellite imagery also present a new challenge: how do you gain an edge if everyone has the same picture? That’s where officials hope that artificial intelligence and new forms of space-collected intelligence, such as radio-frequency data, will create new advantages.

Frazier highlighted work that Maxar has been doing with the Army’s 82nd Airborne, as part of their Scarlet Dragon events, which occur every 90 to 100 days. Over the past 18 months, he said, they learned how to move images to troops on the battlefield in one-tenth of the time.

The company is also putting up more satellites, which “is going to allow us to continue to collect imagery at very high resolution, so 30 to 50-centimeter resolution, but then also be able to dramatically increase revisit over areas of the world that matter [emphasis added].” Over the mid-latitudes, the region between the tropics and the polar circles that includes much of Asia, “We’ll have the ability to collect up to 15 times a day and then also be able to interweave that with other sources to just get persistence.”

In the years ahead, expect an explosion in other kinds of satellite-gathered data—for example,  unencrypted radio chatter from military units that are broadcasting their location via global positioning. At the conference, Annie Glassie, a mission analyst with HawkEye 360, a satellite company that specializes in gathering radio signals, showed how her firm could identify ships that had turned off their AIS receiver— in effect, trying to go dark.

Kari A. Bingen, HawkEye 360’s chief strategy officer, said, “What we are able to detect is effectively.. those electronic warfare, those indicators, emitters, jamming GPS radars, other things that are a leading indicator of, frankly, where Russia forces are and where they’re moving [emphasis added].”

Artificial intelligence is also adding value by combining satellite imagery with new forms of data, including in U.S. European Command’s activities near the Ukrainian border, said one senior executive with a satellite imagery company.

“The feedback we’ve received is that the capabilities both for 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,” he said. He declined to be named out of sensitivity to current operations.

But some officials and representatives from industry are increasingly worried that commercial intelligence satellites will soon become key targets for adversaries who want to return to the days when the world couldn’t easily track their military formations. [emphasis added].

“Both Chinese and Russian military doctrine now capture their view of space as critical to modern warfare. And they consider the use of space and counter space capabilities as a means of reducing U.S. military effectiveness and for winning future wars,” said Lt. Gen. Chance Saltzman, the chief operations officer for the U.S. Space Force. “We’ve seen destructive debris generated by anti-satellite missile tests, [radio-frequency] interference, cyber attacks on terrestrial space nodes and provocative on-orbit anti-satellite demonstrations, such as firing projectiles.”

They have also developed advanced ways to target U.S. government and commercial satellites, Saltzman said…

The industry executive said the government is beginning to have better discussions with satellite companies about protecting private assets… 

And earlier at Aviation Week and Space Technology (full text subscriber only–note Canadian company MDA):

U.S. Government And Space Companies Collaborate To Support Ukraine

Brian Everstine Jen DiMascio Joe Anselmo Garrett Reim April 12, 2022

As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces surged to the border with Ukraine in a massive buildup of Russian military force before the February invasion, the U.S. intelligence community reached out to several commercial space companies and asked for a favor.

The secretive intelligence agencies wanted those imagery, sensing and analysis companies to go public with what they could collect over Ukraine, and do it fast. “Help us rapidly make available imagery” to show the buildup of troops, to help shape international outrage and pressure, Stacey Dixon, the principal deputy director of national intelligence in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, recalled imploring companies before Russia invaded Ukraine. She was speaking at the Space Symposium April 5 in Colorado Springs.

As the violent invasion continues, companies are continuing to release their imagery tracking Russian movements on their own. The outreach from the intelligence community to the companies has not only helped shape the global outrage toward Russia [emphasis added]

“We’re telling the story that needs to be told,” says Daniel Jablonsky, the CEO of Maxar Technologies. “And I think, as the narrative of this conflict is written, we will look at space and space capabilities as a component of that. . . . This is probably the first time our imagery has been this prominent or relevant to a wartime situation.”

For the U.S. military and intelligence community, the capabilities of these companies have also had direct impacts on readiness. Commander of U.S. Space Command Gen. James Dickinson says that with commercial sensors collecting surveillance, he can shift some national assets to focus on other missions [emphasis added].

Maxar, which has been one of the most public contributors—with its images of a miles-long Russian convoy that have gone viral, for example—says it has ramped up its efforts to collect data from above Ukraine. Jablonsky says it is increasing its 3D capability as well, processing “more situationally relevant” data for U.S. European Command and NATO allies…

BlackSky uses artificial intelligence, cloud computing, sensor data fusion and autonomous satellite tasking to bring imagery to customers within 90 min [emphasis added].

“Many of the things that used to be so labor-intensive are now being automated and moving from humans to machines and artificial intelligence to solve the problem,” Wegner says.

The export of imagery still faces red tape for some. MDA, an Ontario-based synthetic aperture radar satellite company [website here], needed an export license from the Canadian government to sell its imagery [emphasis added]. Maxar is in contact with the U.S. government to make sure it keeps Washington happy. Florida-based Terran Orbital, a synthetic aperture radar satellite company, has been sharing its imagery with Ukraine for free.

Since commercial satellite images often are not classified,  some companies can be more nimble in distributing this imagery if they choose…

While much of the focus has been on imagery of military operations—dramatic photos of Russian convoys north of Kyiv or swaths of destroyed buildings in Mariupol—other data sets are proving their worth as well…

…The National Reconnaissance Office is not just buying services from Maxar. It is also releasing solicitations to bring in others with more capabilities such as synthetic aperture radar, an industry official says.

Commercial space companies have proven to be faster in adopting new, emerging technologies even as the government is trying to keep pace. The software and networks on which commercial products operate is more rapid and agile and able to quickly serve customers, but this does make the industry more susceptible to cyberattacks [emphasis added].

The government is evolving to develop a military or intelligence-community-specific capability from scratch only when it is needed. Increasingly, there is more of an opportunity to buy services or adapt what already exists. While this evolution is not new, the situation in Ukraine has shown its potential…

Keep your eyes on your TVs. Now for commercial plain text SIGINT…ain’t capitalism wonderful once in a while.

UPDATE: Now note this almost real-time intelligence from Maxar:

Related earlier post:

How US Got Intelligence on Russia vs Ukraine Right (cf. Iraq failure 2003 and collapse of USSR)–and the USSR, now Russia, as an Intelligence Target

Mark Collins

Twitter: @Mark3ds

2 thoughts on “OSINT IMINT: Commercial Space Eyes over Ukraine and Russia”

  1. Informative post from John Schindler, accessible for free for a while:

    Mark Collins


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