Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Relying heavily on imagery from which to elicit usable information, Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) can give a fighting force the upper hand in a conflict. Likewise, having access to high quality images from space can make all the difference.

Satellite and aerial imagery plays by far the biggest role in the provision of raw material from which GEOINT is derived. The war in Ukraine is a case in point and from its very start overhead images have given the world, as well as commanders on the ground, regular, near-real-time intelligence of the unfolding conflict. With a brief subject overview, this article focuses on satellite imagery in geospatial intelligence, including how such views have been playing a part in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Satellite imagery plays by far the biggest role in the provision of raw material from which GEOINT is derived. Pictured: Landsat 8 satellite.
Credit: USGS

Brief Overview

First coined in 2005 by US Government agencies, GEOINT typically combines imagery intelligence, imagery analysis, charting, and mapping to display the Earth’s geographically-referenced events and physical features, as well as man-made structures. For military applications, such imagery helps a fighting force relate its operations to the exact lay of the land, so that, at the tactical level, precise mission planning can be undertaken with confidence, the force in possession of the best GEOINT, assuredly, gaining the upper hand on the battlefield; accurate, near-real-time, literal imagery – literal imagery describes things exactly as they are without hidden or symbolic meaning – of hostile forces, for example, will enable friendly-force artillery to precisely target enemy positions.

At the strategic level, GEOINT also provides governments with timely, actionable intel effective in counterterrorism ops, as well as information on weapons of mass destruction, and any unfolding global political crises and popular unrest.

While literal imagery is the biggest contributor to an overall GEOINT picture, geospatial intelligence can also involve the processing and fusion of data collected from other sources, such as electro-optical (EO) systems, synthetic aperture radar (SAR), local situational awareness (LSA) systems and more; for example, contributing to an overall GEOINT picture may be the likes of eye-in-the-sky platforms such as AWACS and UAV systems like Global Hawk all the way down to terrestrial vehicle-borne LSA electro-optical systems on an AFV, or even feedback from individual soldier-worn cameras and vision systems. Airborne reconnaissance is nothing new, with a wide range of aircraft having been used through the years, including observation balloons. With specialist platforms such as Lockheed’s long-range, high-altitude, Mach 3+ strategic reconnaissance aircraft, the SR-71 Blackbird, and the company’s high-altitude U-2 Dragon Lady, which previously provided some of the highest altitude GEOINT imagery, agencies and militaries are spoiled for choice today by a wealth of both government and commercial satellite imagery resources.

GEOINT Imagery

Overhead geospatial imagery fundamentally depicts the locations and characteristics of features, both natural and constructed, on the Earth’s surface. Core data includes the likes of topographic, elevation and terrain data, as well as land cover, geodetic information and more, giving decision-makers a multi-dimensional picture of the any area of relevance or interest. It is then the role of a GEOINT analyst to unpack actionable intelligence from that overhead and aerial imagery, in order to provide critical, accurate and timely information regarding enemy force dispositions and movements, potential battle areas and other information vital to friendly forces on the ground. Imagery will include likenesses, or representations of any natural, or man-made feature, or related object, or activity, together with positional data of those features at the precise time the image, or representation, was acquired. Information about the platform, or system that acquired it, such as a satellite, high-altitude aircraft or UAV, optical system/camera, etc. will also be included with analysis.

When it comes to field tube or missile artillery, GEOINT imagery and cartography can supplement standard map reconnaissance with greater detail about potential areas to deploy a battery or other firing and command and control assets. It can also supplement or replace forward observer target information, if such is available at all. GEOINT analysis solutions to support artillery fires include: artillery slope analysis, site/gun position selection, range fan, and line-of-sight analysis solutions, and drop-zone/fall-of-shot, weapon systems field of fire, and cover and concealment analysis solutions. Such solutions can dramatically reduce the time searching for and identifying enemy artillery positions, as well as when reconnoitring suitable gun positions for friendly forces, in addition to identifying and planning safe areas from which to mount ‘shoot-and-scoot’ missions, to coordinating ammunition resupply and more.

Craters in fields and roads around Bakhmut from continuous artillery bombardments, 7 January 2023.
Credit: Maxar

Leading Imagery Provider

One of the leading providers of GEOINT for both defence and commercial purposes is Maxar Technologies, which has a long history of working with the US Department of Defense. In late 2020, for example, under the terms of an 8-year, USD 49 M contract, the company was selected by the US Army’s Geospatial Center as a sole-source, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity (IDIQ) supplier to deliver multiple, highly portable, direct-downlink tactical ground systems – called the US Army Remote Ground Terminal (RGT) – to provide critical GEOINT to operatives in remote locations. Easily transported by two people, the RGT can be set up in about an hour and enables troops to rapidly downlink, analyse and disseminate imagery/data from commercial Earth observation satellites to support their military, humanitarian and/or disaster-relief missions. The system, (which is based on Maxar’s portable Tactical Architecture for Near-real-time Global Operations – TANGO – platform), downlinks data from a variety of commercial sources, including Maxar’s high-resolution WorldView constellation, and is designed to be continuously upgraded with additional commercial EO and SAR sources. It is expected that the RGT system will become the commercial imagery receive node for the US Army’s future Tactical Intelligence Targeting Access Node, TITAN, a scalable intelligence ground station that will leverage sensors across multiple domains to provide rapid and accurate GEOINT-based targeting data directly to precision fires assets. When the contract was awarded, Technical Director at the Geospatial Center, Matt Cro, said that times of crisis are defined by seconds and minutes, not days and months, adding that the Maxar-developed RGT would significantly enhance the speed at which the Army can access critical information at the tactical edge, as well as provide an important technology advancement for enabling TITAN.

Destroyed bridge in Kyiv. Damaged Bridge and road on approach towards Kyiv, Ivankiv, Ukraine, 27 February, 2022.
Credit: WorldView-3 Satellite/Maxar

Instrumental in Ukraine

One of Maxar’s latest US Government developments – and very relevant to the Ukraine conflict – came last year with a contract renewal with the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to provide mission-ready satellite imagery for the Global Enhanced GEOINT Delivery (G-EGD) programme, which has enabled military units, first responders, intelligence analysts and civil government users to tap into Maxar’s 125-petabyte imagery archive and daily imagery collections for time-sensitive, mission-critical planning and operations, since 2011. The latest USD 44 M contract, which began in September, is the third of three option years for the contract, which has a total value of up to USD 176 M. The deal will see Maxar continue to provide over 400,000 US Government users with unclassified, online and offline, on-demand access to high-resolution commercial imagery. (Access to geospatial data and products from other commercial industry providers, such as BlackSky and Planet Labs PBC, are also available through the Electro-Optical Commercial Layer contract.) During G-EGD Option Year 2, NGA developed a roadmap to integrate five commercial SAR data providers into the G-EGD platform by the end of 2023. To date, Maxar has developed ingest solutions for SAR data from Capella Space and ICEYE, to include data visualisation and complete product discovery and delivery methods. Maxar will continue data integration efforts for Umbra and PredaSAR, a Terran Orbital Company, throughout Option Year 3.

Before: Town of Soledar, Ukraine, August 1, 2022, (lat: 48.663700, long: 38.091763).
Credit: Maxar

G-EGD has more than 1.1 million km² of new imagery uploaded each day and anyone supporting a US Government mission can request authorisation to access that current imagery, as well as more than 6 billion km² of archived imagery for time sensitive, mission-critical planning and operations. Dan Jablonsky, Maxar President and Chief Executive Officer, said last year that, “G-EGD has been instrumental in enabling NGA to provide unclassified access to satellite imagery for a wide range of US Government users and partners throughout the war in Ukraine.”

After: Soledar on 10 January, 2023, showing homes, schools and buildings destroyed after months of fighting and artillery exchanges, which began in August 2022.
Credit: Maxar

Indeed, Maxar has been releasing imagery of Ukraine throughout the war, even from before the invasion began when Russian troops were massing in concentration areas over the border. The build-up to the war and Russia’s ensuing attack, unlike such hostilities in the past, has been told through such images providing essential GEOINT to relevant stakeholders. From satellite images of those troops on the border, to columns of armour and tanks moving through the countryside towards Kyiv, a convoy 64 km (40 miles) long attempting resupply, mass graves outside Mariupol, and the town’s theatre, bombed into oblivion despite satellite imagery clearly showing the word ‘children’ written into the ground outside. And the wider world and media, too, have, like never before, also had access to the same GEOINT imagery as the military.

A Wealth of Information

As well as its purely defence-related work, Maxar partners with NOAA, NASA and other organisations where studies overlap into other areas, such as the sharing of Earth observation data/imagery on weather and climate patterns, agriculture and more, which can equally provide GEOINT relevant to and arising from military operations. Maxar’s 1300-class satellite has been serving government and commercial missions for over 30 years in this area. In the case of Ukraine, weather-related imagery and data offer the potential to view geographical features such as lakes and waterways, as well as lines of communication, routes, tracks, that will all be affected by extremes of temperature and rainfall; iced-over, frigid land, for instance, firm and suited to the movement of heavy armour, or weather forecasting thaws turning ground into impassable muddy traps that can devour a whole tank. Weather-related imagery delivers valuable GEOINT to commanders on the ground that will dictate operational planning, including for any spring offensive.

Ukraine’s Wheat

A strategically-contested aspect of the conflict in Ukraine has been its agriculture, specifically its wheat crop, and satellite imagery has provided vital GEOINT in this regard crucial for Ukraine’s Government of world markets. Earth-observing satellites are constantly acquiring imagery across Ukraine’s, currently, daily-changing landscape and analysts are deciphering the impacts of human conflict on the country’s built, agricultural and natural environment. NASA’s Harvest research team, for example, has been using GEOINT imagery and economic data to track how the Russia-Ukraine conflict is disrupting the global food system. In the early days of the conflict, food security specialists wondered if Ukrainian farmers would be able to harvest the wheat and barley they had planted the previous autumn – food for the population and Army, and income to buy more weaponry… or not.

There was also worry that declining grain exports from Ukraine might throw global markets into turmoil and trigger food shortages overseas. Satellite-based production data for Ukraine’s 2022 winter wheat crop, however, showed the harvest was largely successful, the NASA Harvest team having been able to calculate from imagery that 26.6 million tonnes of wheat were harvested in 2022, several million tonnes higher than expected and close to the five-year average of 27.9 million tonnes. That said, they were also able to see that 22% of 2022’s wheat was harvested in the occupied eastern part of the country, out of reach to the majority due to the war.

The NASA Harvest team, (working for more than a decade with colleagues from Ukraine’s Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food and the Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, as well as several other organisations), combines satellite observations and modelling to assess the planting, growth, and harvest of key commodity crops. Data in this instance comes from the commercial satellite company Planet, NASA, and the European Space Agency. NASA Harvest’s analysis showed that 94% of the winter crop was harvested, including 88% of winter crops in areas not controlled by Ukraine. And while the UN-brokered Black Sea Grain Initiative freed up vessels from a few Black Sea ports for some 5.4 million tonnes of Ukrainian grain to reach global markets, GEOINT and economic data analysis showed that Russia benefited from a large amount of the 26.6 million tonnes harvested. This represents a financial loss to Kyiv of at least USD 1 Bn. This detailed analysis would not have been possible without the use of high-quality images from space.

NASA’s Harvest research team has been using GEOINT imagery and economic data to track how the Russia-Ukraine conflict is disrupting Ukraine’s crops and the global food system.
Credit: NASA

Using satellites to observe areas left unharvested, the NASA Harvest team was able to see from GEOINT imagery that these were mainly concentrated along the front line. Wheat is largely harvested in mid-July. In natural-colour mosaic images of Ukraine, based on data from Planet, unharvested wheat fields were visible in dark brown and stand out compared to the light brown harvested fields to the north and south. The lighter brown colour is a sign of leftover plant debris covering the fields after harvesting equipment has sheared the wheat and separated grain from chaff, all of which can be deduced from high-quality imagery and analysis. The images used are a bi-weekly composite of data, based on PlanetScope imagery collected between 12-26 July 2022, by Dove satellites. Landsat images have also shown harvested wheat around the town of Bereznehuvate compared to unharvested wheat around Velyka Oleksandrivka, with natural-colour images acquired by the Operational Land Imager on Landsat 8. Using such satellite imagery to derive war-related agricultural GEOINT has enabled accurate information to reach and calm otherwise potentially uncertain and volatile markets, which, in turn, has benefited returns for the government in Kyiv.

Tim Guest