If there’s one thing that the start of Russia’s reinvasion of Ukraine was symbolised by – other than disregard for life and national sovereignty – it was the prevalence of Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT).

Across television and social media, mobile footage of Russian attack helicopters sweeping across the sky and satellite imagery of columns of armour advancing on the ground dominated – often from commercial companies like Maxar and MDA Corp.


The author of this article is Richard Payne, the Communications Coordinator for the Council on Geostrategy. He holds an MSc in Global Cooperation and Security from the University of Birmingham. This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines.


Prior to the invasion, US and UK intelligence agencies released a rare stream of day-by-day accounts of the Russian military build-up, full of pictures taken from a hundred or more miles above. With the invasion now past its 100th day, Elon Musk’s Starlink terminals are being hailed as a lifeline for Ukrainian forces holed up in the east of the country.

Since the invasion began, there have been many takes – often premature – on how this war has demonstrated that the age of the tank is over or how the age of the drone has finally begun in earnest. But it is in orbit, long the domain of three-letter agencies with multi-billion budgets, that the real revolution has come. The cost of launching mass to orbit has fallen dramatically in the last decade, and the size of the space economy has blossomed, with Citigroup analysts predicting it will reach $1 trillion by 2040. 

The war in Ukraine is demonstrating that a forward-thinking approach to harnessing this growth is required. The United Kingdom last year set out a National Space Strategy (NSS) and followed it up with a Defence Space Strategy (DSS) designed to do just that. Launching the Integrated Review in March 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “[w]e will make the UK a meaningful actor in space, with an integrated space strategy which brings together military and civil space policy for the first time.

Headlines often focus on the government’s ambition to have the first orbital launch from European soil, but it is the partnerships with the UK’s flourishing commercial space companies that will net the biggest national security returns for a reasonable investment. Having the capacity to launch national security payloads from your own territory brings the advantage of being able to do so rapidly, but this should chiefly be understood through the lens of deepening cooperation between public and private interests in the space domain.

Being able to gather and disseminate information in a modern conflict, as well as the rapid reaction capability to stay ahead of hostile disruption, will be essential to commanding UK forces away from home. Russia launched its invasion with a targeted hack of Viasat, an American company that provides satellite internet services throughout Eastern Europe, that was designed to cripple Ukraine’s ability to communicate with its frontline soldiers. GCHQ should partner, where appropriate, with the UK’s many cyber-focused space companies and their products – be it harder to crack software or nearly impossible to intercept hardware like laser communications.

Creating an intelligence ecosystem in which analysis of detailed imagery of enemy movements can take place quickly and reach commanders on the ground in minutes rather than hours is not only achievable but vital. As the war in Ukraine has progressed, OSINT aggregators on Twitter have catalogued Russian losses, troop movements, failed river crossings and more – working almost entirely from freely available commercial satellite data. 

The DSS outlines that “[s]pace-based Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance [ISR] capabilities will form a large part of the portfolio, given its criticality to all military operations and other capability investments”. An article published on June 13th in The Times sheds some light on how the government is already working towards this goal – two satellites set to be the first launched from UK soil will “carry out an initial scoping exercise to see what is possible for the UK in the future.

This would pave the way for a sovereign network of small, cheap satellites that can easily be launched or replaced to provide ISR capabilities from orbit.

The UK will not and should not be a space player on the level of the United States or China.  The war in Ukraine has and continues to demonstrate the value of agile and effective usage of readily available resources, and the government appears to be learning the right lessons.

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Martin
Martin
6 days ago

Would really like to see an expansion of sovereign UK space infrastructure and enhanced cooperation with CANZUK nations on this. Possibly through shared EO/SAR recon satellites and launch capability for polar orbiting from NZ/Scotland or equatorial from Womerang. A joint space agency for all four countries would seem to be a very easy first step for any sort of CANZUK treaty and possible cooperation on larger military and civilian space capabilities could be considered. GPS constellation would be the obvious one and possible participation for the other 3 countries in One web could be done. SIGNIT satellite capability independent of… Read more »

Richard Payne
Richard Payne
6 days ago
Reply to  Martin

Hi Martin – some good suggestions here, although I’m not sure how practical a joint space agency would be. The only similar example to that is ESA, and members of ESA maintain their independence outside of the organisation. I think this would come during or after any CANZUK deal manifested, if one ever does, rather than before. I’m of course happy to be proven wrong on this! I know the UK has been making noise about an independent GPS system, especially as we’ve had to exit the Galileo system the EU has been developing. However, that’s an expensive set of… Read more »

Martin
Martin
1 minute ago
Reply to  Richard Payne

Hi Richard, I would suggest a joint space agency between the four as its a pretty easy thing to do. ESA is the prime example of what can be done. The UK is being squeezed out of ESA now. Canada has a program but its limited to US cooperation and Australia and NZ have basically nothing. So its pretty easy for all 4 to agree to form a join agency. Space is not that important today but in 100 years it may be the most important thing. GPS satellite may not be the way to go given the potential success… Read more »

Monkey spanker
Monkey spanker
20 hours ago
Reply to  Martin

Being able to have a launch platform in the U.K. will be a massive benefit for quickly launching satellites. The tech that can be fitted on smaller satellites only gets better with time.
It’s definitely going to be an area to watch.

Martin
Martin
18 hours ago
Reply to  Monkey spanker

For sure, having some form of rapid deployment of satellites should also be considered. The uk could easily take a world lead in this if it wanted.