Space, the other front of the war in Ukraine

The front of the war in Ukraine is multifaceted. Undoubtedly, it is above all above ground – loss of life, bombings, captured and then liberated cities are only unfortunate examples – informational and technological. But this war is also being waged on another front that is often forgotten: in space.

The Gulf War of 1991 is often referred to first space war, due to the significant use of space assets by the United States, one of the belligerent states, in support of ground operations. Thirty years later, the war between Ukraine and Russia begins “perhaps the first two-sided space war,” American think tank Atlantic Council is moving forward, the two parties are particularly dependent on space.

There are certainly no impressive stratospheric explosions, spaceship battles, or laser blasts. But there are satellites. Thousands of satellites in orbit.

Satellites, the main players of the war in Ukraine

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists database, as of May 1, 2022, there are 5,465 satellites in service on Earth. Most are used for commercial purposes, but there are about 100 military satellites among them. Most of them belong to the USA, China and Russia. Ukraine can count on the support of its European and American allies.

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The main role of the militarization of space has been revealed since the morning of February 24 – a distinction must be made between the militarization of space, which refers to space capabilities (surveillance, eavesdropping, etc.) used to support military forces on the ground. weaponization of space, i.e. putting weapons into orbit.

Russia is conducting a cyber attack against the satellite network of the American operator ViaSat to prepare the ground for the invasion, intending to disable the mobile communication consoles of the Ukrainian military and disrupt the communications of many countries in the process.Europeans. As Russia’s offensive continued, Western space powers shared images from space to support and guide Ukraine’s counteroffensive.

“We use space to strike with precision, we use space to warn of the presence of missiles, any threat that the United States, our allies or partners may face.”General Jay Raymond, the US military’s chief of space operations, sums up in an interview with the BBC.

A satellite image showing a large deployment of Russian military vehicles in the direction of Kyiv, Ukraine, February 27, 2022. Makhar/GettyImages

“As in previous conflicts, the space field allows for the observation of the battlefield thanks to satellites, as well as the creation of secure telecommunications in the service of the armed forces.”, Arthur Sauzay, lawyer and space contributor to the Institut Montaigne, details in the post. But the war in Ukraine highlighted something new: “New private actors have provided the public and the media with basic information gathered by their means.”

“Satellite imagery was once the preserve of advanced militaries and very few countries” Mark Hilborn, a lecturer at King’s College London, writes as much in an article published in The Conversation. “But today, more and more commercial companies are taking such pictures, and their combined capabilities may exceed the capabilities of the Russian military.” outdated.

The Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine Mykhailo Fedorov called himself open letter It was published on March 1 to share the information of private operators. For him, it is the war in Ukraine “The first war in which commercial space capabilities played such an important role”including providing information on troop positions and refugee flows.

Technology and private actors in the military

Heeding the call of billionaire Mykhailo Fedorov, the owner of the space company SpaceX, Elon Musk deployed a constellation of Starlink satellites over Ukraine, allowing civilians and the military to use the Internet even if the ground infrastructure (cables and towers) were destroyed by bombing. and acts of sabotage. To date, 20,000 low-orbit terminals are in service in Ukraine. Less vulnerable to enemy cyberattacks, more powerful and faster than geostationary satellites, they are also widely used by Ukrainian forces to calculate the trajectory of their missiles and geolocate their targets.

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In addition to the now-important Space X, other private players, mostly emerging on the space scene, are involved in satellite data collection and networking. “This is a very new thing, the intervention of startups, as we call it newspaper area, in this conflict”, emphasizes Paul Wohrer, a researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Studies in the Huffington Post. But, “Although highly visible and dynamic, the New Space remains largely dependent on the will of states” and their financing, answers Arthur Sauzey. Satellite operators have also asked governments to help protect their systems from attacks.

An aerial view of the Crimean bridge, partially destroyed by an explosion, on October 8, 2022.

On October 14, 2022, when Elon Musk told CNN that he could no longer provide free spatial internet to Ukraine due to rising defense and cybersecurity costs, the relationship of interdependence between private and public was illustrated. caused by Russian attacks. The billionaire is asking the US Department of Defense to fund the Starlink bill for the next twelve months before backing out a few days later.

A poignant sequence that underscores the important geopolitical role of technology for Ukraine, which can serve both civil and military society. “Elon Musk just showed he has a major military asset with Starlink”analysis for echoes Julien Nocetti, assistant researcher at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).

There is another drawback to private sector involvement: security. As the Huffington Post reminds us, Elon Musk’s spatial Internet is often criticized by experts for being easily geo-located. Google Maps, in turn, has suspended part of its services in Ukraine to prevent Russian troops from providing the location of civilians.

What will be the future of space warfare?

Should the increased use of space raise fears of stratospheric contagion? the BBC asks. After all, Russia – China has already conducted exercises to destroy its own satellites, claiming that satellites from companies working with the Ukrainian military are legitimate targets in May. General Raymond says to himself “Concerned about a number of threats”from weapons “direct energy” such as lasers or ground-launched missiles.

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However, in a space war, experts believe that jamming satellites, GPS and communications (techniques that Russia has been using extensively for several years now) would far outweigh physical attacks. The Atlantic Council think tank points to several reasons: “Cyber ​​attacks do not cause physical damage, are cheaper than interceptor missiles, offer the possibility of deniability, and are less likely to provoke armed retaliation.”.

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