The space revolution in the service of war

In the fog of war unfolding in Ukraine, one of the main lessons the armies learn concerns the new space deal. Whether observing, listening, geolocating or transmitting data, the space sector has become the key to combat on Earth. Satellites have been used by armies for a long time. But in Ukraine, they have become commonplace. “President Zelensky would never have been able to establish such contacts with the military and citizens without the Internet connections offered by satellites,” notes Airbus Defense and Space chief Michael Schoellhorn.

Before the US Congress, General David Thompson of the US Space Force insisted on the essential role that commercial satellites now play in armed conflicts and on the resilience provided by the new low-orbiting constellations of small satellites. “During the Gulf War in the 1990s, there were at most 80 satellites serving the international coalition. Today, we have ten times more! Ukraine becomes an open book, satellite imaging becomes commonplace”, observes Valéry Rousset, author of the book “War in the open, Iraq 1991, the victory of dreams”.

Direct help from the Pentagon

Thanks to satellites, Washington tells Ukrainian soldiers from the Pentagon where to position themselves and where to shoot. And this is how moderately trained soldiers can hit the target with their anti-tank or anti-aircraft weapons, especially when the missiles used have a “fire and forget” function, which allows them to autonomously hit a target.

Why didn’t the Russian army further block Ukrainian communication networks during its offensive in Kyiv? Observers wonder. Especially since on the eve of the invasion, Russia managed to “hack” a ViaSat telecommunications satellite, leaving opposing teams fearing the worst. However, two days after the offensive, Ukraine asked for help from the constellation of low-orbiting satellites Starlink deployed by Elon Musk to maintain its communications. Nearly 11,000 Starlink Satellite Connection Kits were shipped and deployed to the ground, allowing around 150,000 Ukrainians to connect every day.

The constellation revolution

With over 2,300 satellites in orbit, Starlink appears indestructible for now, the loss of a few satellites hasn’t been enough to put it out of use. “It is difficult to block a constellation of more than 2,000 satellites. This constellation is a major and revolutionary breakthrough as it makes high-speed voice, data and video available to everyone.”observes Valery Rousset.

Suddenly, constellations in low orbit become an essential asset of the Armies. In observation, constellations such as Planet or BlackSky provide frequency imagery, while military satellites provide ultra-high resolution imagery for ever-increasing theaters of operations. In data transmission and the Internet (broadband), Starlink and other constellations play an unprecedented military role.

China threatens Starlink

China was not mistaken, announcing that it was carrying out research to destroy a constellation like that of Elon Musk, which it now classifies in the military field. Ukrainian units therefore use Starlink for “blue force tracking”, which allows them to stay connected to their allies on the battlefield. In the future, no one doubts that the constellation’s small satellites can be destroyed or scrambled, for example, with laser weapons, but at the moment, their large number makes it “difficult to flatten a net”, argues General Thompson.

In the French army, it should be noted that connectivity and social networks do not only change the situation at the operational level, but also at the information and propaganda level. We also observed the creativity of the Ukrainians in diverting civilian apps for military uses and thus turning their smartphone into an intelligence tool. “Diia civilian app for storing official documents (driver’s license, passport, etc.) Another example is the Clearview facial recognition app, used to help war crimes investigators or to alert Russian mothers about the death of their child.

Accelerate the construction of a European constellation

Could Elon Musk be Ukraine’s savior? Let’s not exaggerate, we respond to the Ministry of the Armed Forces. It takes connectivity, but above all the ability to process and prioritize information, which emphasizes what the military calls “C4ISR” (Computerized Command, Control, Communications in Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance). But the trivialization of the satellite on the battlefields allows an increasingly connected combat in ever wider and deeper terrains. “In the future, we need satellites and men equipped with ammunition, but also smartphones”observes an army colonel.

At this stage, the war in Ukraine fully justifies the project advocated by the European Commissioner Thierry Breton to endow the European Union with its own sovereign constellation. No European country can afford this space infrastructure alone. The entry ticket has been valued by the European Commission at a minimum of €6 billion for a constellation of around 300 satellites in different orbital planes. “Europe is already far behind, every day counts, we have to act fast”, underlines the head of Airbus Defense and Space. “Starlink and its first generation of satellites are a kind of prototype, now we need to develop our infrastructure as efficiently as possible, with intersatellite links to guarantee our sovereignty”, we confirmed to Balard.

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