In May 2022, the conflict in Ukraine was called the world’s first commercial space war. In January 2023, the head of the U.S. Space Force noted that Ukraine demonstrated space is critical to modern warfare. 

But has space proven to be catastrophically decisive

As the conflict enters its third year, it has become clear space power has limits. Based on experience in Ukraine, it’s worth examining what space can and cannot do to win wars. It’s also worth underlining that wars are still decided by weapons and manpower.

Since before the start of the conflict, U.S. space companies have provided Ukraine vast amounts of commercial imagery for intelligence and surveillance purposes and high-bandwidth satellite communications capabilities, helping Ukrainian armed forces deploy military resources on all fronts as effectively as possible. 

They deployed smart munitions that used Global Positioning System data and steered Starlink-guided drones to their targets. 

Commercial space capabilities also revealed to the world what was happening in Ukraine, in high resolution and near-real time, such as when the world watched Russian tanks bottlenecked along the highway to Kiev in the opening days of the war. 

Russia was well aware of the threat from space, hacking Viasat as the war started and trying to jam Starlink signals.

Making the best use of space

Ukraine made the best use of space during the war’s first several months. It also capitalized diplomatically on Russia’s mistakes and blunders, as well as their atrocities against civilians, captured in satellite imagery, to build international support and debunk Russian misinformation. 

Russian space power, built on aging Soviet-era technology and systems, was never able to effectively support the war. Using its asymmetrical space advantages to the fullest, at a time when Russian forces also faced logistical and morale problems, Ukraine achieved its greatest war gains by November 2022.

What has changed since then? Not Ukraine’s access to space, which it has maintained throughout the war despite Russian efforts. Nor have Russian space capabilities markedly improved since the start of the war. 

What changed is that Russia started producing and using more artillery, importing some from North Korea, and using thousands of Iranian drones

Moscow also has poured in more troops, costing the Russian Armed Forces over 300,000 injured and dead

Slowly, Russia negated Ukrainian space advantages by deploying a sheer mass of capabilities in other domains.

There are several lessons to be learned about space power from Ukraine. 

Space capabilities, whether from commercial or government systems, can help a nation use its available military force more effectively, but do not change the underlying limits and constraints of that force. 

Like other asymmetrical capabilities, space can create temporary, but probably not decisive, advantages. 

War can also be fought by military forces with subpar space capabilities, like the Russians are doing. Interestingly, having space power seems to create a false sense of strength, masking weaknesses that manifest themselves in an extended conflict. 

A final lesson is that space provides unprecedented transparency on the toll of modern war, but transparency has done little to lessen the war’s burden on civilians. This has also been proven true in Gaza.

Maybe the biggest lesson of all for the United States is that we should refocus attention on ammunition, missiles, artillery, aircraft, ships, and anything else that throws mass on the battlefield. 

The inability of the Central Powers to keep up with Allied munitions production arguably contributed to its defeat in World War I. During the last year of World War II, the Allies produced over twice as many rifles, four times as many combat aircraft, sixteen times as many mortars, and 31 times more major naval vessels than the Axis Powers. 

Today, according to expert estimates, the U.S. military spends over $50 billion annually on space, but we might run out of some munitions in less than one week in a conflict with China. 

It doesn’t matter how many satellites you have if you don’t have enough bombs and bullets. 

War continues so long as men and women continue to pick up a gun and fight and combatant nations can keep them clothed, fed, and armed. Even today, wars are still decided by iron and blood.

Clayton Swope is deputy director of the Aerospace Security Project and senior fellow of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C. 

Clayton Swope is deputy director of the Aerospace Security Project and senior fellow of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C.