“Someone’s on the move,” Jeffrey Lewis tweeted on Feb. 23, 2022, the day before Russian forces invaded Ukraine.
Known on social media as @ArmsControlWonk, Lewis had been tracking Russian movements in the days preceding the invasion, using synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellite data from a commercial company, Capella Space.
In a recent interview with SpaceNews, Lewis recalled the tweet included a SAR image of a Russian armored unit that had just arrived in Belgorod, near the border with Ukraine. To him, it was clear that an invasion was imminent. However, a commercially available satellite image was still not enough to convince many skeptics who didn’t believe Russia would go forward with the invasion.
As we approach one year since the start of the conflict, Lewis says he continues to be astounded by the intelligence that is now open and accessible.
“This is the first war that we can sort of doomscroll through on social media,” he notes. It’s easy to forget that in every conflict before this one, most of the satellite images available to independent analysts and news media about world events came from government sources.
No other conflict has had this “kind of immersive quality to it, a lot of it due to social media information and part of that story is satellite imagery,” Lewis says.
A professor of nonproliferation studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, Lewis pioneered the use of open-source intelligence for independent reporting on issues like North Korea’s nuclear weapons or the aftermath of natural disasters.
On that day before the invasion, Lewis turned to other publicly available data to corroborate the SAR image of the Russian armored unit. He matched it up with a video of Russian vehicles that one of his colleagues on the ground posted on TikTok. The final piece of evidence came from Google Maps, showing heavy traffic near Belgorod exactly where that armored unit was sitting.
“A lot of my colleagues thought it was crazy that you would be able to fuse the data you get from social media with the data that you’re getting from a satellite image in order to see something like this,” Lewis says.
The Institute for the Study of War, a research group based in Washington, also has used satellite imagery and other open-source intelligence to track events in Ukraine.
George Barros, geospatial intelligence analyst at ISW, says commercial imagery has been “instrumental for our work.”
Speaking at a recent event hosted by Voice of America, Barros notes that “these new technologies are being leveraged to bring forward honest, timely, accurate assessments to try to help inform the public.”
“There’s been an explosion in the kinds of data that people can collect commercially, which is fantastic and amazing,” Barros says.
The U.S. government, to be sure, helped to open the spigot of commercial imagery because it knew an invasion was about to happen but could not share its own classified satellite images with allies or news media.
Lewis credits the Biden administration for the unprecedented release of commercial imagery and for ensuring the images were “annotated and pointing to things that analysts like me could go check.”
While electro-optical images provided by Maxar, Planet, BlackSky and others are really powerful and visually appealing, Lewis considers SAR the “breakout technological capability of this particular war.” In Ukraine, he says, “when you take optical images, what you frequently get is a picture of clouds.”
Whether it’s radar, optical or other forms of satellite-based data, he says, there is still a lot of potential in commercial imagery that hasn’t yet been realized. In conversations with colleagues, “I point out to them all the time that satellite imagery would solve a ton of problems they have, but they’re just intimidated by it.”
Radar imagery is especially challenging because it’s not a picture that can be understood intuitively, he says. Making sense of SAR data requires special software tools and an investment in trained analysts, “so that’s always been a little bit of a barrier.”
Although there’s still more work to be done in this area, the geospatial intelligence community will view the Ukraine war as a pivotal moment in the use of information from space to inform and to shape world events, says Lewis. “We’re entering an era in which it’s just very hard to keep a lot of activities secret.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.