Commercial Satellites Take the Secrecy Out of ISR

Russian artillery deployed northeast of town near Talakivka in March 2022. (Maxar)

The commercial world is proving not only that it can provide critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to nation states, but also that it has the ability to rapidly develop and adapt its technology to a wide variety of missions.

The war in Ukraine has illustrated from the outset, quite publicly, the role that satellites are playing in conflict because of their capacity to provide Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) images which not only give advanced warning of a potential enemy attack, but also act as an important contributing factor in determining not only wider strategy but also local tactics.

Historically this type of deep intelligence imagery would have been highly classified, most likely through a sovereign capability such as a high flying Lockheed U2 or SR-71 Blackbird in the case of the United States, or via other airborne manned or unmanned assets within a defence alliance (such as NATO).

But in weeks prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the world was receiving almost daily updates of the Russian Army’s build up of its forces around Ukraine’s border areas, particularly in Belarus, the Luhansk and Donetsk rebel enclaves and in Crimea. This had been made possible by commercial satellite services, such as Maxar (Digitalglobe), who through its Maxar News Bureau provided images to a wide variety of news outlets all over the world.

This was recognised by Air Vice Marshal (AVM) Paul Godfrey, Commander, UK Space Command during his keynote speech on the first day of the Global MilSatCom conference in November 2022 in London: “There has been a huge increase in commercial ISR in space. There was a significant global awareness in the weeks leading up to the invasion of Ukraine of the Russian military build up around its borders, as well as the frequent updates that were covered by the media.”

Among Maxar’s striking imagery were pictures of the incredible traffic-jams of Russian Army logistics vehicles “including a 40-mile convoy traveling to Kyiv in the early days of the war, the atrocities in Bucha, the destruction of Mariupol” and others noted the company.

Traffic jam
Early in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Maxar released pictures of Russian Army logistical ‘traffic jams’ in Ukraine. (Maxar)

AVM Godfrey noted in particular the role that these satellite images played in proving ‘war crimes’ by Russian troops against Ukrainian civilians. The attempt by Russia at disinformation regarding the dates when Ukrainian civilians had died in Bucha during March-April was revealed: “Russia ran the narrative [that] the Ukrainians killed their own people and placed the bodies in the streets before the Russians actually got there. Clearly commercial ISR systems proved beyond doubt that the bodies were not there before the Russians had actually arrived.” He said that the value of this type of intelligence should not be underestimated in terms of its value as a deterrent in the future.

With neither Russia nor Ukraine dominating the air environment, Godfrey noted that (ISR) missions were increasingly difficult, unless space was accessible. When Russia effectively closed Ukraine’s airspace to NATO airborne ISR flights when the invasion began at the end of February, NATO aircraft were forced to operate to the West of Ukraine and over the Black Sea. However, satellite intelligence is likely to have been made available since then to Ukraine’s armed forces, although this is unconfirmed.

NATO satellite services

NATO as an organisation also relies on satellites for a range of activities that include ISR, tracking its forces wherever they are in the world, and also for detecting missile launches. As an extensive user of satellites, the organisation has recently launched a new satellite services project called NATO SATCOM Services 6th Generation (NSS6G). It is managed by he NATO Communications and Information (NCI) Agency which will provide services to NATO up to 2034.

NSS6G combines the resources of four nations – France, Italy, the UK and the US – who will provide space capacity from their military satellite communications (SATCOM) programmes to NATO. These are: Syracuse from France, Sicral from Italy, Skynet from the UK and WGS from the US.

NSS6G encompasses three separate projects:

– the super high frequency (SHF) band, which covers the high-capacity SATCOM links for deployed and static users;

  • the ultra-high frequency (UHF) band, which covers the low-data rate tactical user requirements;
  • the extremely high frequency (EHF) band, which provides highly survivable SATCOM services for special user requirements.

NATO systems that use the NSS6G include the Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system. “In addition to using the UHF band from NSS6G, NATO AGS uses two other types of satellite communications via commercial contracts with industry: Ku band provided by LuxGovSat and Inmarsat via Airbus Norway,” according to NATO. This provides all NATO member nations with a state-of-the-art airborne ground surveillance capability which is adapted for NATO’s ISR requirements.

One element of this is provided by the UK’s Space Command Space Operations Centre, based at RAF High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. AVM Godfrey said that his command works with organisations such as US Joint Navigation Warfare Centre “to analyse the effects of space weather and jamming of GPS.

The has relied on its UK Skynet satellites since the 1960s, with the newest iteration manufactured by Airbus, Skynet 6A, due to be launched in 2025.

Civil owned, military operated

In terms of space, the civilian world can develop and operate constellations of satellites much faster than the military. There are also a range of services that can be delivered that can be used by states to discover activities by other actors that are sensitive and have implications for their own defence.

In September 2021 the New York Times reported that American satellite operator HawkEye 360 “discovered radar and radio waves associated with a Chinese-based fishing fleet off the coast of Oman.

“When the company matched the data up with information from NASA satellites that track light sources on the Earth’s surface, it discovered the vessels were using powerful lights — a telltale sign of squid hunting — as they surreptitiously sailed into Oman’s fishing waters with their tracking transponders turned off.” While this is an obvious benefit to countries looking to protect their maritime Exclusive Economic Zone from illegal fishing, HawkEye 360s technology has also been responsible for detecting military activity on borders such as that between China and India.

HawkEye 360 has been rapidly growing its satellite constellation with the latest Cluster-6 trio of satellites being launched into orbit this January. HawkEye 360’s satellites can increaingly provide its customers with Radio Frequency (RF) Geospatial data and SEAker Analytics, that can deliver global maritime awareness of not only military vessels but, as illustrated above, vessels potentially transgressing maritime by ‘going dark’ with their GPS transponders switched off. HawkEye 360 can also detect changes to pattern of life signals as well as spoofing and the placement and operation of GPS jammers.

HawkEye 360 - Syrian port visit 2021
One example of HawkEye 360’s deliverable successes was in the detection of cargo vessel CPT. AHMAD II in 2021. After leaving Turkey the vessel turned off its Automatic Identification System (AIS) for a period of several days to hide its visit to the port of Tartus in Syria, a country that is heavily sanctioned. According to HawkEye 360, VHF geolocation revealed the vessel had stopped in Tartus before returning to its original route and resuming transmissions of AIS. This map shows the track of the CPT. AHMAD II when the was on and the diversion to Tartus when it was turned off. (HawkEye 360)

One recent contract success for the company was its selection by Slingshot Aerospace “to provide data for Slingshot’s space-based monitoring and detection of RF threats and to support Slingshot’s proliferated Low Earth Orbit (pLEO) Data Exploitation and Enhanced Processing (DEEP) program for the US Space Force’s Space Systems Command (SSC).”

Alex Fox, HawkEye 360 chief growth officer, explained: “GPS is heavily integrated in the day-to-day operations of our global landscape, but one signal interference by an adversary can disrupt many functions of an economy and military,” he said.

“This partnership allows us to significantly improve our ability to capture, process, and characterise the RF signal environment into relevant and timely insights for US Government space operators,” said Alonso Segura, Slingshot Aerospace senior director, Government Programs.

Another civil contract awarded by US Space Force went to Raytheon Intelligence & Space which has been tasked with developing a prototype Missile Track Custody (MTC) system which will operate from Medium Earth Orbit. The MTC will comprise a space vehicle with a missile tracking mission payload carried by a Lockheed Martin LM400 satellite bus, as well as a ground-based command and control and mission-data processing structure.

In January this year, Raytheon Intelligence & Space was awarded a prime contract to develop a prototype Missile Track Custody system for the US Space Force. (Raytheon)

According to Raytheon: “The ground system will use the Future Operationally Resilient Ground Evolution Mission Data Processing Application Framework (FORGE MDPAF). Raytheon’s FORGE MDPAF collects and processes data from satellites, including Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) space vehicle data from both Space Force’s Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) constellation and the future Next-Generation OPIR constellation.”

by Andrew Drwiega