In the wake of the full-scale Russian invasion, global attention has focused on Western military support extended to Ukraine. Much of this recognition centers on the provision of conventional resources, such as ammunition, fighting vehicles, tanks, artillery, air defense systems, and, of course, the famously effective High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS). While media narratives fervently discuss escalation fears, indecision on NATO membership, delayed fighter jet deliveries, and ethical dilemmas surrounding cluster munitions, the most indispensable facet of support often goes unnoticed while quietly shaping Ukraine’s battlefield success. We are talking about space-based capabilities and their effects, encompassing overhead Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), satellite communications (SATCOM), GPS, and the associated Navigation Warfare (NAVWAR) capabilities. Equally impressive is the West’s unparalleled ability to draw from its innovative commercial space industry to source many of these capabilities. Most remarkably, however, has been the West’s commitment to harness the full weight of its comprehensive targeting framework—powered by space capabilities—and funnel them to Ukraine under the ambiguous banner of “intelligence sharing” from the onset.

The revolutionary nature of space capabilities in this conflict is undeniable. Something truly historic in the realm of warfare is occurring. The provision of space capabilities is allowing a categorically inferior military force to stand its ground against a globally renowned military with astonishing success. This conflict demonstrates how superior space capabilities can drastically tip the scale when allocated to the weaker side, even in a conflict primarily centered on ground forces. However the final diplomatic outcome of the war pans out, the results to date alone should force a serious discussion about the measurement of military power and the space domain’s role in determining outcomes. Adding to the complexity are the limits Russia finds itself beholden to regarding its counter-space capabilities for fear of escalation. All of this should prompt questions about modern near-peer confrontations, particularly considering the looming shadow over Taiwan and the potential flashpoint between the United States and China.

Measuring Modern Military Power

The field of international relations is filled with theories attempting to quantify power dynamics between nations, with military prowess at the forefront. Ground forces certainly remain the primary instrument for conquering and controlling land. Yet, in our technology-driven era, a genuine assessment of modern military power requires a more nuanced perspective beyond the mere tally of brigades, the effectiveness of tanks, or the reach of missiles. We must recognize the indispensable role space capabilities play in shaping the battlefield and determining outcomes.

Despite the initial disparities in military resources, Ukraine’s comparatively smaller force – initially counting 90,000 active defenders, 3,300 armored combat vehicles, and 132 aircraft – has stood its ground against an overwhelming Russian force. The latter boasted 900,000 active soldiers, 16,000 armored combat vehicles, and the world’s third-largest air force, crowned with advanced 5th-generation aircraft. Conventional wisdom anticipated a swift Russian victory. So why wasn’t this conflict over within weeks?

In search for answers, many analysts have underscored the swift international response, highlighting monetary aid, materiel transfers, and sanctions imposed on Russia. Depending on one’s international relations theory of choice, one might credit effective international institutions or point to “offshore balancing,” a strategy where a great power enables partners, rather than executing direct military involvement to check rival aggression. Yet, the truth remains: most of these international measures mentioned thus far took substantial time to wield tangible influence on the battleground. 

Others have suggested a myriad of other reasons for the outcome including: morale, training, tactical proficiency, command & control deficiencies, the inherent challenges of urban warfare, and even equipment maintenance failures. While these factors undoubtedly contribute, they alone cannot explain the surprising endurance of Ukraine. Was Russia so inept at warfare, or did Ukraine, even with its newfound support, suddenly become a military powerhouse overnight? Perhaps, there is another dynamic at play.

Space, A Decisive Domain

In discussions about evolving battlefield dynamics, the prominence of weaponry like the HIMARS with its impressive 80-kilometer range cannot be ignored. While its superior range, accuracy, and mobility are commendable, the Ukrainians’ precise use of the HIMARS, without ISR satellites of their own, draws special attention. Ukrainian forces have consistently hit command facilities, weapons depots, key troop positions, and even high-ranking military leaders with impeccable precision, raising questions about the targeting infrastructure behind them. Similarly, the effective deployment of Western long-range air-to-ground munitions, such as JDAM-ERs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions-Extended Range), hinges not just on the weapons’ inherent capabilities but on the intelligence and targeting framework supporting them. Without this, these advanced weapons would be more comparable to their World War II-era predecessors.

It is not by mere coincidence Ukraine’s bombs, rockets, and other long-range strikes find their mark with astonishing precision. The consistent tactical edge Ukraine demonstrates in battlespace situational awareness does not stem from good generalship alone. Likewise, the limited effectiveness and short-lived success of Russian Electronic Warfare (EW) efforts can’t be chalked up to morale factors. And it is not merely domestic intelligence which has allowed Ukrainian forces to anticipate Russian targeting and leverage “shoot & scoot” tactics with significant effect right from the conflict’s onset.

From the invasion’s early days, both the White House and the Pentagon have been relatively transparent about intelligence sharing with Ukraine. The term “targeting” did briefly become contentious in Washington, especially when it was revealed just how effectively Ukrainian forces had eliminated roughly 12 Russian generals by mid-2022. However, hesitancy to use the term, driven by fears of Russian retaliation and escalation, gradually diminished. It further receded into the background when Ukrainian representatives began openly discussing it, partly to persuade the US to supply even longer-range weapons like the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). “Targeting” means different things in different contexts, and it has certainly been prudent of the U.S. diplomatic apparatus to tread lightly on the subject in the public sphere. 

At the heart of this discourse lies a subtle yet pivotal insight that cannot be ignored: Ukraine’s defense is not solely a product of its courageous ground forces and generously donated equipment, not even the helmets from Germany. Rather, the nation is actively tapping into the unmatched space power of the U.S., NATO, and their associated commercial space sectors. Regardless of the exact dynamics of the ‘targeting’ relationship, it is clear the backing of the world’s premier space infrastructure and targeting framework has crucially shifted the conflict’s balance.

A Subtle Consideration: Is Russia Holding Back in Space?

Acknowledging the foundational concerns touched upon at the beginning, we must address an elephant in the room: Russia has so far been unable or unwilling to directly target Western space systems destructively, both on the ground and in orbit. The fears of backlash and spiraling escalation appear to have deterred Russia, even as it brandishes its capabilities and makes vague threats to do so.

The Russo-Ukrainian War undoubtedly offers invaluable space insights into contemporary warfare. Still, we cannot overlook that Russia’s potential for aggressive counter-space actions has been restricted, muddying the waters when drawing parallels to other imminent near-peer confrontations, such as a potential U.S. intervention in a Taiwan invasion. Indeed, while Russia might be hard-pressed to obliterate the  5,000-strong Starlink satellite network (with jamming efforts already proving fruitless) or target intelligence exploitation sites in the U.S. without risking nuclear escalation, we must contemplate a more realistic scenario. What if Russia were to actively shoot down or irreparably damage an American high-value satellite? Or worse, what if they began kinetically attacking Western ground control or space surveillance installations within their own hemisphere? While opinions vary — even within expert circles — about Russia’s genuine ability to execute such capabilities should their inhibitions subside, a consensus emerges regarding China: the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) not only possesses these capabilities but is also likely to deploy them with unnerving efficacy.

While opinions vary — even within expert circles — about Russia’s genuine ability to execute such capabilities should their inhibitions subside, a consensus emerges regarding China: the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) not only possesses these capabilities but is also likely to deploy them with unnerving efficacy.

Considering China: A Distinct Theater Challenge

Over the past three decades, China has constantly signaled its intentions to bring Taiwan under military and political control as evidenced by defense whitepapers, strategy textbooks, and speeches. Predicting U.S. involvement, China has purpose-built its military to counter American capabilities. The PLA’s Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2AD) strategy has entailed acquisition and development of the most sophisticated air defense system in the world, a formidable amphibious assault force, the world’s largest Navy, and a missile arsenal designed specifically to take U.S. airfields, aircraft carriers, and strategic air assets out of the game. The PLA is preparing for counter-intervention. 

The logistical challenges of assisting Taiwan—or any other Indo-Pacific partner—diverge starkly from the Ukrainian context. Taiwan is an isolated island, complicating avenues for assistance once hostilities commence. Very few options exist without direct involvement. This has stirred doubts globally about the U.S.’s likelihood of intervention despite directive legislation. However, should the U.S. decide to intervene, China’s approach will unquestionably depart from Russia’s restraint, especially in counter-space actions.

China’s destructive Direct-Ascent Anti-Satellite (DA-ASAT) test, striking a weather satellite in 2007, caught the world’s attention, but it was only the beginning. Not only did this prove China could hold satellites at risk, but it signaled an intent to control the domain. The system is now operational, and is only one component of a wide plethora of counter-space weapons that have either been fielded or are currently in testing. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, China has fielded similar missiles, effective against most orbit types; on-orbit “space robot” grappling weapons; various directed energy weapons (think lasers); and plentiful jammers of all types including world-class GPS-jamming capabilities. China even stood up an entirely new organization in 2015 to oversee these new weapons.

It is clear China has correctly identified space as the U.S. military’s center of gravity in the Indo-Pacific, and the developments in Ukraine underscore this evolving landscape.

What drove China’s space ambition? It is clear the PLA learned from the best. During the first Gulf War, China was taking note of the way the U.S. was able to sweep over its opponent with such ease and speed using what they termed “information dominance.” The integration of space capabilities marked the beginning of Chinese military modernization, and a pursuit to negate the U.S. space advantage. 

U.S. warfighting capabilities are more reliant than ever on an uncontested use of space. GPS, SATCOM, overhead ISR, missile warning, and over-the-horizon linkages are all prerequisites for the way the U.S. conducts warfare. It has also proven to be a key means to balance conflicts, as witnessed in Ukraine. It is clear China has correctly identified space as the U.S. military’s center of gravity in the Indo-Pacific, and the developments in Ukraine underscore this evolving landscape.

So What?

The transformative role of space capabilities has been the most decisive contribution the West has made to the Ukrainian resistance, undeniably shaping the conflict’s trajectory. This challenges many entrenched assumptions about military power. Yet, a looming uncertainty remains: the potential efficacy of this support if Russia fully unleashed its counter-space arsenal. Defense analysts, particularly those with space expertise, are meticulously extracting insights from this conflict. My admonition, however, is to temper these observations with the realization that such balancing contributions may not persevere in a less restrained confrontation. The PRC has constructed an entire strategy predicated on neutralizing U.S. space capabilities. It would be profoundly shortsighted for U.S. planners to expect similar restraint from China, especially in scenarios akin to Taiwan intervention.

The Pentagon’s task is twofold: first, to appreciate the decisive potency of U.S. space power—both governmental and commercial. Second, to introspect and identify these assets as its own center of gravity, particularly when engaging in conflicts abroad. Consequently, development and procurement strategies must desperately prioritize defending, preserving, and ensuring an ability to extend these capabilities, regardless of the fiscal burden.

Regarding Taiwan, the imperative is clear: proactively empower the nation—air defense, artillery, training, and munitions—well before hostilities ensue. This approach will give the U.S. and allied space architecture the best chance to extend Taiwan the kind of support that has been so pivotal for Ukraine. Once intervention goes kinetic, the West’s ability to deliver space support—unhindered by Chinese counter-space action—will likely wane. As the landscape of warfare evolves, understanding the dynamics, impacts, and limitations of space power becomes not just a consideration, but a vital and more often decisive requirement.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy, or position of the National Intelligence University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

U.S. Air Force Major Kenneth Bell serves as deputy chair of the Global Security Intelligence Studies (GSIS) Department at National Intelligence University, where he instructs on applied International Relations theories and Chinese military capabilities...