Space-Based Surveillance: Insights from Contemporary Conflicts

The significance of space-based Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) systems has become increasingly prominent in modern warfare. Advanced space-based ISR capabilities, once the preserve of superpowers, are now accessible to an increasing number of states, altering the power dynamics in international conflicts. For instance, the war in Ukraine and the conflict in Gaza can be considered case studies for analyzing contemporary utilization of space-based ISR, underscoring the strategic value of space-based ISR and drawing attention to its complexities and challenges. The contrasting application of space assets in both conflicts offers a unique lens through which to view the evolving dynamics of techno-politics, particularly in the context of the burgeoning commercialization of the space sector.

Space-based ISR has played a crucial role in the Russo-Ukraine war, particularly in Ukraine’s defensive and counter-offensive strategies. Ukraine’s effective utilization of commercial satellites has proven to be a game-changer. Lacking an indigenous satellite programme, Ukraine has effectively leveraged commercial platforms to enhance its situational awareness by exposing Russian troop movements and fortifications while guiding Western-supplied long-range missiles to crucial Russian targets. Reportedly, over 200 commercial satellites have enabled Ukraine to offset Russia’s conventionally superior military and undermine its formidable space prowess by levelling the playing field with access to real-time battlefield ISR.

The accelerating commercialization of the space sector has facilitated the democratization of space technologies by lowering the barriers to entry, allowing non-spacefaring nations like Ukraine to exploit space-based assets for strategic and tactical gains without incurring the substantial financial burden of establishing a space programme. However, integrating commercial space assets against an established space power like Russia has introduced complexities. Russia has repeatedly levelled threats of targeting commercial satellites aiding Ukraine. However, any potential kinetic targeting of these private satellites operated by non-Ukrainian firms, mainly those in the US and Europe, carries grave geopolitical ramifications by increasing escalation and widening the conflict.

In contrast, the Israel-Hamas conflict has offered a different perspective on the utility and limitations of space-based ISR against an elusive non-state actor like Hamas. Despite Israel’s commendable satellite capabilities, evidenced by the launch of its most advanced spy satellite on 29th March 2023, Hamas’ coordinated attacks against Israel months later, on 7th October 2023, successfully circumvented Israeli space surveillance. The sheer scale of these attacks exposed Israeli over-reliance on technology in monitoring Gaza; space assets mainly offer unparalleled situational awareness, but they are not infallible in all circumstances against all kinds of adversaries. Their drawbacks are especially apparent in conflicts against non-state actors who employ guerrilla tactics and operate in densely populated urban environments to evade satellite and digital surveillance. Therefore, in asymmetrical warfare, space superiority does not guarantee tactical invulnerability.

Considering these conflicts as case studies, one notes both commonalities and divergences in the practical employment of space assets. Both cases underline the significance of space-based ISR; however, the nature of the adversaries—state vs non-state actors—and the types of warfare—conventional vs asymmetric—have led to differing applications and varying effectiveness. While Ukraine has used commercial satellites to counter a technologically superior adversary, Israel’s challenges have been countering non-state actors, who employ far less sophisticated technology and more elusive tactics. The contrast highlights space-based surveillance’s versatile but not omnipotent nature in modern warfare. This fact underscores the necessity for a hybrid approach towards acquiring actionable intelligence, augmenting space intelligence with on-ground human intelligence and real-time data analytics to address the challenges faced by space-based ISR.

Furthermore, a nuanced analysis of the role played by space assets in contemporary conflicts highlights two critical aspects: the broader disruptive impact of the interplay of technology and geopolitics as the commercialization of space continues with the proliferation of small and redundant mega-constellations such as that of Starlink. However, the increasing accessibility of space-based ISR capabilities will likely lead to widespread reliance on space assets in worldwide conflicts, necessitating new military strategies, and requiring international oversight for monitoring their proliferation and addressing the resulting geopolitical ramifications.

Commercial satellite imagery is another essential facet of modern conflicts. The provision of unrestricted imagery in Ukraine has been pivotal in rallying global support against Russian aggression by exposing Russian atrocities and resulting devastation. In contrast, the US had restricted the sale of advanced commercial imagery in Israel that would shed light on Israel’s destruction in Gaza, further negatively impacting global perceptions. The differing US policies towards allowing and restricting satellite imagery in Ukraine and Israel highlight the intersection of technology and varying geopolitical interests in modern warfare.

In light of these conflicts, it is clear that space-based surveillance and reconnaissance are not just tools of warfare but pivotal elements in the broader strategic and geopolitical calculus of nations. However, the commercialization of space-based ISR and the increasing access to high-resolution satellite imagery represents a double-edged sword, accompanying opportunities and challenges depending on whether they advance or undermine a state’s interests. As the world navigates the collective challenges confronted in space, the final frontier, a collaborative and regulated approach to space operations, will ensure global stability by responsibly harnessing the potential of space-based assets.


About Syed Mustafa Bilal 1 Article
Mustafa Bilal is a researcher at the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS), Lahore, Pakistan. He can be reached at [email protected]

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