Geospatial Technology’s Role in the Conflict in Ukraine

October 13, 2022
Photo credit: Ungrim /
In the context of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the importance of space technologies cannot be overstated.

On February 24, 2022, Professor Jeffrey Lewis from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California was searching through Google Maps data. He was working with a research team of students as part of a project to analyze images taken from space. The team noticed what they thought was a traffic jam near Belgorod, Russia, at 3:15 a.m. local time. However, they soon realized that it was a unit of Russian armored vehicles mobilizing toward the Ukrainian border. The students and Professor Lewis may have been among the first to realize that Russia would invade Ukraine, hours before the invasion was recognized on a larger scale and reported on by any media outlet.1  Anecdotes like this demonstrate the increasing role of space technologies and geospatial data in warfare.

While space technologies and the space sector more broadly are relevant for countless aspects of warfare, international cooperation, and industrial developments, the role of Earth observation (EO) data and the availability of global navigation satellite system (GNSS) signals and satellite communications, including broadband services, are particularly pertinent in light of the conflict in Ukraine.

The Strategic Role of EO Data in the Context of Hybrid Warfare

Not only is EO data vital for military strategy, but the public availability of indisputable satellite imagery has also been important in combatting disinformation. Many atrocities have been documented, including satellite imagery of a trench dug near the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, where a mass grave was uncovered. In April, the United Nations established an inquiry into human rights violations by Russian military forces. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has also launched an investigation in conjunction with the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s office. Satellite images have been used in the past in courtrooms, notably in 2016 when the ICC prosecuted a defendant for a war crime using imagery of direct attacks on historic monuments and buildings in Mali.2

While satellite imagery will certainly play a crucial role in these investigations, there are many questions that it cannot answer, and such evidence must be examined alongside other data including ground imagery and witness testimony to ensure that prosecutors do not jump to conclusions based on satellite imagery alone.

Satellite data has been employed by both civilian and military entities in unprecedented ways throughout the conflict in Ukraine. On March 1, 2022, the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine appealed to global remote sensing firms and organizations to provide synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) data to support the Ukrainian Armed Forces. SAR technology is a form of EO data that is particularly useful in the context of war because it can penetrate cloud cover and provide imagery in different kinds of weather conditions. Space companies such as Planet, Maxar Technologies, MDA, and the Finnish microsatellite manufacturer ICEYE are all playing a critical role in boosting Ukraine’s defense capabilities, for example by providing satellite imagery detailing the damages caused to civilian infrastructure and the movements of Russian troops.3  Finally, synergies between satellite observation and navigation services can also be leveraged to conduct important search and rescue operations, as illustrated by the life-saving humanitarian support enabled by the Copernicus and Galileo constellations, both managed by the newly established European Union Agency for the Space Programme (EUSPA).4

The Need for Secure Satellite Connectivity for Civilian and Military Applications

Ukraine’s terrestrial internet infrastructure is vulnerable to power outages, and traditional satellite internet has been affected by cyberattacks. In February, Viasat’s KA-SAT network fell victim to a cyberattack, one of the most visible of its kind. Satellite internet users throughout Europe felt the consequences of their crippled modems, particularly in Ukraine, where KA-SAT had been providing satellite internet connectivity. This incident, caused by a ground-based network intrusion, raises important questions for the different use cases for satellite connectivity, and what is required for governmental, military, and civilian use. Different levels of security requirements are established for these use cases. Space segment and terminal costs as well as the availability of secure frequencies are all factors that must be considered when establishing security requirements for different users.

In the context of Ukraine, questions arise regarding the level of protection that commercial operators are able to ensure as opposed to military-grade infrastructure, where governments and armed forces need enhanced network resilience as hybrid threats become more prominent.

On February 26, 2022, following widespread internet outages throughout Ukraine, the vice prime minister of Ukraine appealed to Elon Musk for help in providing Starlink terminals.5  While Starlink is vulnerable to issues similar to traditional civilian satellite internet, the terminals have thus far served as a reliable back-up in areas with internet outages for civilians and are also being used by the government. However, because the technology constitutes civilian infrastructure, users are more vulnerable to location tracking through the emitting or receiving of signals. But military units in rural areas with poor internet connection and widespread outages could set up a Starlink dish within 20 minutes, allowing soldiers to operate drones, for example, and quickly relay information to other units and centers.6  Shortcomings in traditional satellites have also reinvigorated efforts to modernize the EU’s capabilities for satellite connectivity. In June 2022, the EU member states agreed on a mandate for negotiations with the European Parliament on the proposal for a regulation on the Union Security Connectivity Programme, from 2023 to 2028, which will seek to establish a sovereign and secure space-based connectivity system for satellite communication services, in part also helping to improve the EU’s resilience against hybrid threats.7

The Future Role of Geospatial Technology and Implications for the Transatlantic Community

The unprecedented role of geospatial data for a multitude of aspects in the war in Ukraine demonstrates the powerful synergies between space and defense. With the growing duality of geospatial technologies and the widespread availability of commercial satellite data, governments, including military and intelligence services, are grappling with tough questions on how to better control, access, and protect sensitive information provided by commercial operators. It is vital that these trends are taken into account and that governments integrate these new realities into national security and defense policies. The conflict has forced the transatlantic community, specifically Europe, to think more strategically about space and expand the focus of the space sector from purely civilian and commercial activities to leverage the increasing synergies between space, cyber, and defense capabilities. This also entails the necessity for governments to improve the resiliency and security of space-enabled communication infrastructure, with ground segments being the most vulnerable. In Europe, many key developments are underway, with the creation of a new Directorate-General for Defence Industry and Space in the European Commission, and the council approving in March 2022 an overarching EU Strategic Compass for Security and Defence, which includes an Action Plan on Synergies between Civil, Defence, and Space Industries8 , and an upcoming Space Strategy for Security and Defence in 2023. And in line with the European strategic autonomy objectives, the EU is creating an Observatory on Critical Technologies aiming to identify, monitor, and assess dependencies in critical technology areas, including in space, defense, and civil sectors.9

In today’s context of intense geostrategic competition and hybrid warfare, the increasing risk of space technology weaponization should alert policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic, and prompt them to work together toward the establishment of new norms and rules for the protection of space operations and infrastructure. Which avenues are most appropriate for fostering transatlantic cooperation in this domain? What will NATO’s role be in these strategic areas? How do questions around the concepts of strategic autonomy, technological sovereignty, and supremacy impact cooperation? What role will commercial actors play in this relationship, and how can their expertise be leveraged by governments? Space, cyber, and defense are becoming increasingly intertwined, and this trend is sure to continue. It is important that these questions remain at the forefront of the transatlantic debate, as the security domain is rapidly changing. These new challenges must be met by ambitious and innovative solutions that take into account today’s new geopolitical reality, which calls for strong transatlantic engagement and leadership more than ever.