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Scouts in Orbit

In order to effectively operate on the battlefield, modern armies need space technologies.

When on February 24, 2022, Russian troops launched an open aggression against Ukraine, the world was in shock. No one anticipated that the war would actually break out. Even more so that the highest-level Russian politicians, along with Vladimir Putin, assured there was nothing to fear, as the military directed towards the Ukrainian borders was merely to participate in maneuvers. However, the words of Russian officials were contradicted by data obtained through space technologies: on high-resolution satellite images of places where Russian troops were stationed, analysts found large field hospitals, which are not built for the time of maneuvers. Owing to space technologies, Western intelligence knew even before the full-scale war in Ukraine started that Russia had been preparing for something more than exercises. Imaging reconnaissance from space also proved useful a few weeks later, when the Russians tried to blame the Ukrainians for the crimes in Bucha. Satellite images made it clear that the bodies of murdered civilians were lying in the streets of the town at the time the area was occupied by Russian troops.

New Domain


Space was recognized as a new area of operational activities for NATO troops at the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Brussels on November 20, 2019 – it was then defined as the fifth operational domain, on par with land, air, sea and cyber domains. This decision was made due to the turbulent development of technology, the modern battlefield is also rapidly changing. “In the past, reconnaissance troops were the main source of information, with a soldier reporting from outside the line of contact of troops. Today, everything is changing due to the development of technology. It is not the reconnaissance soldier who is the first source of information, but image data sent from orbit,” admits MajGen (Pilot) Cezary Wiśniewski, Deputy General Commander of the Polish Armed Forces. The importance of space in military operations is also emphasized by the Director of the Department of Innovation at the Ministry of National Defense, BrigGen Marcin Górka. “Almost all of the activities of the armed forces and military operations carried out today depend on satellite services, which undoubtedly strengthen our defense capabilities. During an operation, data from space is used at virtually every stage,” stresses the general.

Space is of fundamental importance to the Alliance in several areas crucial to modern military. Data and services provided by space technologies are used by the military in the context of positioning, navigation, precise time indication, early warning (mainly regarding ballistic missile launches, identification of threats and information on space operations). These are needed in all types of armed forces. “Invaluable here is optoelectronic or radar reconnaissance, access to data transmission, or satellite navigation – necessary if we are dealing with precision missile systems. Satellite services also support the process of identifying and targeting, and enable subsequent evaluation of the effectiveness of conducted strikes,” enumerates BrigGen Górka.

Arms Race

Marek Czajkowski, PhD, of the Department of National Security at the Jagiellonian University, points out: “Everything is clearly visible from orbit. Using equipment with appropriate resolution, you can get a very detailed image of objects and places on Earth. The entire enemy territory is under observation.” It was actually the desire to gain extensive knowledge about the situation on enemy territory that mainly motivated Americans to develop their space activity in the 1950s. “Americans wanted to reach beyond the USSR borders and check what was happening there. They didn’t have good access to information, so the creation of an optical reconnaissance system was a determinant in the development of the American space program,” explains Czajkowski.

Together with passing time and increasing technical capabilities, the accuracy of obtained information also grew. “The first Gulf War was already called a space war. At that time it became common to use continuously acquired satellite imagery for planning attacks, and to use satellite positioning systems. Without GPS, the Americans would have been lost in the deserts of Iraq, especially at night, and in fact they conducted operations very efficiently. This proves that the use of space technology has gone from the strategic to the operational and tactical level,” stresses the Jagiellonian University lecturer. He also points out that today all satellite services are even more advanced and widespread. In developed armies that have access to them, intelligence or observation data is transferred directly to subdivisions in the field.

As space technologies offer very extensive possibilities, their development has become a necessity. Many world armies decide to build their own capabilities in this domain, which is emphasized by Gen Wiśniewski: “I am under the impression that we are currently witnessing an arms race in space, and the number of countries that have and use space technology is growing sharply. Poland, as a state with great aspirations, cannot remain in the starting blocks. It is important to enter and take part in the space race, because these are the requirements of the modern battlefield.”

Highest Priority

The necessity to develop our own space capabilities derives from the need to quickly access various types of data. “Space systems have certain limitations, such as those arising from orbital mechanics, which is why it is so important for the armed forces to have high priority in accessing transmitted content. This is especially important in a situation like the one we have across our eastern border. As armed forces, we need to have precise data at precise time,” stresses BrigGen Górka. What are the issues connected with prioritization? The director of the Department of Innovation at the Ministry of National Defense explains that satellites located over a given area can only perform a limited number of visualizations. If Poland uses satellite services on the basis of a commercial contract, it is not necessarily the first in line to receive the data, as there are usually multiple users of the system. For many years, the Polish Armed Forces have been using data supplied by commercial service providers, made available by NATO allies or obtained under bilateral agreements. An example of the latter is the agreement with the Italian side concerning access to first- and second-generation COSMO-SkyMed systems. “These are satellite-based radar imaging reconnaissance systems, accessible regardless of weather conditions and time of day, good enough for analysts to use and prepare recommendations for ongoing operations or information activities,” emphasizes BrigGen Górka. The Polish military has also been using the American GPS (Global Positioning System) signal for years, and is preparing to also use the Galileo navigation system developed within the European Union. Both systems offer a secure service prepared for military and government users.

The work on obtaining own space capabilities was launched at the Ministry of National Defense several years ago, and now it is gaining momentum. “We are constantly conducting activities aimed at building priority capabilities, fully managed by us, which will, regardless of the conditions, provide us with access to satellite data, products and services,” says BrigGen Górka. This is carried out, among other things, on the basis of the intervention directions set forth in the National Security Strategy of the Republic of Poland, the Polish Space Strategy and documents prepared by the Ministry of National Defense. “Today we mainly use external data. When creating a national system, we will rely on our own, and supplement it with information obtained from other countries' systems or commercial companies. This way we can get very good imaging from all sources. And the more sources, the more reliable the data,” concludes BrigGen Górka. The Director of the Department of Innovation at the Ministry of National Defense explains that the Polish ambition is to build a satellite imaging reconnaissance system consisting of two components. The first one will consist of large satellites providing very high-resolution imaging. “We call it the quality component. We are talking about larger and more expensive satellites. There will be fewer of them in higher and more stable orbits, but they will provide better quality imaging,” explains Górka. The second component of the planned system is the quantitative component, the so-called revisit component: “Here, we are dealing with a larger number of smaller satellites, which do not provide data of very high quality, but because there are more of them, the frequency of observation of the same place is much higher,” explains the officer. At the end of 2022, Poland signed a contract with the French industry for the delivery of two big observation satellites with a receiving station. They are to be placed in orbit at the turn of 2026/2027. GenBrig Górka considers it to be a breakthrough event. “For the first time, the Polish military will have state-owned satellites, managed by the Polish Armed Forces. They will be used for the needs of the army, but also other services and public administration. We will utilize them during, for example, various types of emergencies, floods, fires, but also for monitoring agriculture or land management,” explains Górka. Moreover, Poland will be able to share the imagery with its allies. Our satellites are to be placed in orbit in four years, and until then the Polish Armed Forces have access to an already functioning French constellation. The images from the orbit are characterized by very high spatial resolution, reaching 30 cm.

Procuring large satellites is not the only goal of the Polish Armed Forces. They are also making efforts to build four small satellites for Earth observation. The Polish industry is to supply them within the framework of the MicroGlob program. At the end of May 2023, the Armament Agency signed a contract with Creotech for an industrial feasibility study, which is the first phase of the construction of the microsatellites. The entire program is expected to take about four years to complete. “The Polish industry is not yet ready to produce larger satellites, but we would like it to have the competencies to build micro-class satellites, up to about 100 kg. I hope that in time it will become the main provider of space services for the domestic armed forces, and not only for them,” says BrigGen Górka.

When it comes to the radar part of the system, the quality component is provided by the Polish-Italian contract, within the frame of which the second-generation COSMO has recently been launched. It is still necessary to obtain the revisit component. “The Armament Agency is conducting market research in this aspect. We would like to build a constellation of four to six small satellites. We are considering various possibilities, including domestic and foreign suppliers,” concludes BrigGen Górka.

Balancing Potentials

The possibilities offered by space technologies are enormous, which has been confirmed during the war in Ukraine. It can be said that access to data from space largely balances the difference in military potentials between the Ukrainian and Russian armies. The advantage of the Ukrainians in this field comes from the support offered by the West. One example is the Starlinks, which allowed the Ukrainians to swiftly replace ground communications systems with satellite ones. Some 40,000 Starlink terminals have been delivered to Ukraine. “They are used not only to maintain Internet communication [...], but also to carry out direct military tasks. There are reports on the use of communications offered by Starlink to coordinate artillery fire with observation drones,” pointed out Rafał Kopeć, PhD, of the Institute of Security and Computer Science at the Pedagogical University of Cracow in his article “The Use of Orbital Systems in the Russia-Ukraine War.” Marek Czajkowski, PhD, of the Jagiellonian University, also draws attention to satellite communications: “The use of satellite systems is certainly one of the most important factors enabling the Ukrainians to deter Russian troops. Russia has a limited amount of satellite assets ready for operational use, and the technology there is outdated. Sanctions imposed on Russia's space industry after 2014 have dramatically slowed the development of satellite systems. Compared to the Ukrainians, the Russians are almost blind and deaf.”

BrigGen Marcin Górka has a similar outlook on the matter, saying that satellite imagery reconnaissance is one of the primary sources of information for the Ukrainian side. The general believes, however, that the Russians should not be underestimated in this regard, as they are demonstrating, for example, that they have the capacity to disrupt GPS signals or physically attack ground infrastructure. The head of the Department of Innovation at the Ministry of National Defense mentions how reconnaissance from space can be used to protect own troops. The Ukrainians, knowing when Russian satellites or those operating in Russia's favor will be conducting reconnaissance over their territory, can take measures to mislead the enemy or simply cease activity that could expose their operational plans.

What else can be seen from space? “It is said that Russians have established in Ukraine the largest defensive positions since WWII. Satellite systems have meticulously counted and measured them, which is visible even in open access images. The Ukrainians have probably obtained detailed data also from the Americans,” says Marek Czajkowski, adding: “Satellite imagery also helps to confirm appropriate camouflage of own troops, identify objects on the other side of the front line or update maps.”

Key Reconnaissance

Returning to Poland, the development of space technologies is important because they would perfectly complement the capabilities that our army already possesses, particularly when it comes to reconnaissance. “The armed forces are a whole. In the army, everything must work well together. This is also the case with reconnaissance, which has several levels and forms a kind of pyramid,” points out BrigGen Górka. In order to be effective, it must be conducted using various means: ground, air – manned and unmanned – and space. “It is only through the existence of all these elements that we can gain full situational awareness on the battlefield, and thus an advantage,” concludes the general.

How this system should work is explained by MajGen Cezary Wiśniewski on the example of Ukraine. The officer says that it is difficult to conduct reconnaissance using manned aircraft in a situation where no country has gained air superiority. “Particularly the Russian experience from the war in Ukraine proves that without having sensors in space, waging war is virtually impossible. Russia, which has multiple combat aircraft, is unable to penetrate Ukrainian airspace. Without proper quality sensors in space, the Russians have lost the ability to effectively carry out such tasks,” stresses the general. In this situation, the only safe way is to conduct imagery reconnaissance using various classes of UAVs.

“In order to effectively carry out offensive tasks, the attack process itself is divided into phases. In aviation we call this the killchain, or the chain of death. It comprises six successive phases of performing air tasks: Find, Fix, Track, Target, Engage, Assess. Of those listed, as many as four relate strictly to what we gain from reconnaissance in its broadest sense, including reconnaissance carried out from space,” says Gen Wiśniewski. It is therefore a key element of the decision-making loop in terms of planning and execution of tasks. “The Russians, lacking good reconnaissance from space, attack the wrong objects, such as deserted airfields, barracks or warehouses,” he adds, stressing that in the case of the Polish Armed Forces, it is necessary to mention one more element that will significantly increase our capabilities in combat and reconnaissance – namely, the fifth-generation aircraft.

Although it may be hard for some to believe, space technology is right at our fingertips. Every day we check the weather on our phones, use navigation, perhaps satellite Internet, and look at pictures of the Earth taken from space. All of this is widely used in the military. Events in Ukraine prove every day that utilizing space technology is of tremendous value to the military, and without the use of what is in orbit, effective combat on Earth is basically impossible today.

Magdalena Kowalska-Sendek, Robert Sendek


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