As Russia prepared to invade, U.S. opened commercial imagery pipeline to Ukraine

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Leading up to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, U.S. intelligence agencies more than doubled its procurement of commercial electro-optical imagery

COLORADO SPRINGS – An unprecedented release of commercial satellite imagery of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and the rapid sharing of that intelligence – was facilitated by U.S. intelligence agencies that already were familiar with the capabilities of the private sector and how they could be applied, a U.S. intelligence official said April 6. 

“We partner with over 100 companies, we’re currently using imagery from at least 200 commercial satellites and we have about 20 or so different analytic services in our pipeline,” David Gauthier, director of commercial and business operations at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), said during a panel discussion at the 37th Space Symposium. 

“Because of all that, when Russia prepared to invade, we and the NRO [National Reconnaissance Office] increased and accelerated several efforts that were underway commercially,” said Gauthier. 

The daily flow of intelligence that previously was only available from government sources and seldom released to the public is no accident, said Gauthier. “This moment has really been set up by a lot of hard work by many companies and many in the government to prepare ourselves to take better advantage of commercial capabilities.”

Leading up to the conflict, he said, “we more than doubled the commercial electro-optical imagery that was bought over Ukraine.”

Imagery from companies like Maxar, BlackSky and Planet “was able to flow directly to those who need it, EUCOM [U.S. European Command], NATO and directly to Ukrainians,” Gauthier said. 

Use of radar to see through clouds

The bad weather and heavy cloud coverage over Ukraine became a problem for optical imaging satellites that use visible, near-infrared and short-wave infrared sensors to produce photographic images. Those satellites can’t see through clouds so NGA turned to commercial operators of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) sensor satellites that can penetrate cloud cover and shoot pictures at night. 

“We took commercial SAR, which was in our testing and evaluation pipeline, and we brought it directly to operations,” said Gauthier. “And we increased our purchasing power fivefold and started buying SAR capabilities all over the battlefield because of weather, quite honestly.”

“Months earlier than we had planned, we rolled that into full operations and flowed data to NATO,” he said. “And we did the same thing with some aircraft detection services that we were using in the area.”

Those efforts, however, still weren’t “good enough,” Gauthier said. “We still had this feeling in our minds that we needed to get more geoint directly into the hands of Ukrainians to really impact what was happening on the ground.”

NGA then started to facilitate and coordinate independent private efforts to directly provide their products and services to Ukrainians in theater, he added. The data was shared through a web portal. 

“We took sort of the entire IT architecture we normally operate on and connected companies directly to analysts in Ukraine over the internet,” said Gauthier. “That was the fastest, most direct way to do that.” Even in bad weather conditions, commercial SAR images helped Ukrainian forces figure out where they needed to strengthen their defenses and where their infrastructure was suffering.

Separately, NGA turned to companies like HawkEye 360 that use satellites to detect radio-frequency signals to help identify sources of electronic jamming that could impair U.S. communications or GPS satellites. 

“The ability to detect and understand where GPS interference was happening on the battlefield is incredibly important,” he said. 

Based on the experience over six weeks of war, “we’re now accelerating some new and untested commercial services that will help us in the humanitarian aid efforts for the long term,” said Gauthier. “The amount of commercial geoint being used is unprecedented in this engagement. It’s on the news every day. And I couldn’t be prouder of the way our companies and our government have responded.”