The first commercial satellite remote sensing companies worked closely with the military from the start, but many of the newer entrants had not been developed with national security applications in mind. Planet Labs, the US-based company that played a major role in the Ukrainian conflict, describes his customers as those in “agriculture, government, and commercial mapping,” and it hopes to expand into “insurance, commodities, and finance.” Spire, another American company, was originally focused on weather tracking and commercial marine activity tracking. However, when the US government set up pilot programs in 2016 to evaluate the value of data from these companies, many of the companies welcomed this new source of income.
Value of Commercial Data for National Security
The US government has its own very capable network of spy satellites, so partnerships with private companies may come as a surprise, but there are clear reasons why the US government benefits from these schemes.
First, the simple fact that by buying commercial data, the government can see more locations on Earth. In some cases, data is now available fast enough to enable real-time decision making on the battlefield.
The second reason has to do with data sharing practices. Sharing data from spy satellites requires officials to go through a complex declassification process. It also risks revealing information about secret satellite capabilities. Neither is a problem with private company data. This aspect makes it easier for military to share satellite information both within the US government and with US allies. This benefit is a key factor for the war in Ukraine.
Use of satellite data in Ukraine
Commercial satellite imagery has proved crucial to this war in two ways. Firstly, it is a media tool that allows the public to follow the war in great detail, and secondly, it is a source of important information that helps the Ukrainian military plan day-to-day operations.
Even before the war started in February 2022, the US government was… actively encourage commercial satellite companies to share their images and showcase the Russian activity. Commercial companies released images to show Russian troops gather near the Ukrainian borderdirectly contradict statements made by Russia.
In early March 2022, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov asked eight commercial satellite companies for access to their data. In his request, he said this could be the first major war in which: commercial satellite images played an important role. Some companies, and within the first two weeks of the conflict, obliged the Ukrainian government received data relating to: more than 15 million square miles (40 million square km) of the war zone.
The US government significantly increased his purchases of footage that could be provided to Ukraine. The US government has also actively maintained direct ties between US companies and Ukrainian intelligence analyststhereby promoting the flow of information.
A recent example of the value of these images comes again from Planet Labs. In recent weeks, the company has released images showing the conflict drawing dangerous near the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant. In recent days, UN officials have said the situation is a “very real risk of nuclear disasterand insisted that UN experts be allowed to visit the site.
More Russian military equipment is being deployed at the #Zaporizhzhia Nuclear power plant in Enerhodar, a new drone video shows. Here’s a little thread with geolocations and recent @planet high resolution satellite images showing new military positions and strike effects????1/x https://t.co/BPJa88tbUN pic.twitter.com/YM1TB4fI5M
— Wim Zwijnenburg (@wammezz) August 8, 2022
Before the war, Ukrainian officials thought money would be better spent on “sober” security needs than on expensive satellites. But now look at these officials satellite images as critical— both for battlefield awareness and for documenting atrocities allegedly committed by Russian forces.
Look forward to something
Some space experts have called the war in Ukraine the first “commercial space war.” The conflict has clearly demonstrated the national security value of commercial satellite imagery, the ability of commercial satellite imagery to promote transparency and the importance of not only national space power, but also: the space capabilities of allies.
I believe that the fact that the US commercial sector had such a significant effect on military operations and public opinion will lead to increased government investment in the private satellite sector worldwide. Leaders in Ukraine plan to investing in domestic satellite imaging capabilitiesand the US has expanded its commercial purchases. This expansion may present new challenges if abundant satellite imagery is available in the future to actors on both sides of a conflict.
Some Earth observation satellite companies have expressed hope that the lessons learned will expand beyond war and national security. The ability to quickly produce images and analyzes can be used to: follow agricultural trends or provide insight into illegal mining activities.
The war in Ukraine could prove to be a major turning point for both global transparency in conflicts and the commercial Earth observation industry as a whole.
Mariel Borowitz is an associate professor of international affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology.