The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Commercial satellites test the rules of war in Russia-Ukraine conflict

Companies are releasing images that once were seen only by intelligence agencies

A satellite image shows Russian aircraft parked at the Luninets Air Base in Belarus on March 1. (Planet Labs PBC/AP)

One image shows a bombed-out hangar at a Ukrainian air base where a massive cargo airplane was destroyed. In the next photo a bridge connecting Ukraine to Belarus lies in pieces. The next: a trail of smoke along the Russian-Ukrainian border that was the probable site of a missile launch attack.

These high-definition satellite images from the Russian invasion of Ukraine were not snapped in secret by the CIA or the National Reconnaissance Office. Neither are they classified. Rather, the images come from a private company known as Planet, one of several companies with a fleet of satellites that act as eyes in the sky — or, in this case, space. The images are public, posted on the Internet and released to the media in what constitutes real-time documentation of the war from fleets of highly capable satellites swarming around the Earth in space.

The images are so revealing and, in a time of war, valuable, that Mykhailo Fedorov, the vice prime minister of Ukraine, sent a plea last week to several satellite companies urging them to share their imagery with Ukrainian military.

“We badly need the opportunity to watch the movement of Russian troops, especially at night,” he wrote on Twitter. “This is really the first major war in which commercially available satellite imagery may play a significant role in providing open-source information about troop movements, military buildups, in neighboring countries, flows of refugees and more.”

At least five satellite companies are sharing their imagery now, EOS Data Analytics, the company that Fedorov asked the satellite companies to partner with to help process the data, told The Washington Post this week. As many as eight others have not responded, an EOS spokesperson said. The spokesperson would not name any of the companies.

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Countries have for decades used satellites to spy on their enemies. But the revolution in satellite technology, which has made them smaller, less expensive and highly capable — and also placed them in private hands — is raising new questions about the ramifications of such information, especially in a time of war.

What happens if a commercial entity from the United States provides actionable intelligence — images of a Russian convoy, for example — to a foreign government that then uses that data to mount an attack? Would Russia be justified in attacking the satellite? And if that were to happen, how should the U.S. government respond?

Those questions have no easy answers, despite the Pentagon’s years-long interest in the private sector’s satellite abilities and its partnerships with 10 commercial satellite companies to keep tabs on what is happening in space. But the current Russian war on Ukraine has made them newly relevant.

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing this week, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) noted that “Russia has been trying to jam the signals and block coverage” of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite system over Ukraine and asked Gen. James Dickinson, the commander of U.S. Space Command, what the “legal framework” is “when “private actors become involved in contested situations.” Dickinson didn’t answer directly, though he noted that Starlink’s operations had demonstrated “what a megaconstellation or a proliferated architecture can provide in terms of redundancy and capability.”

Jack Beard, the co-director of the space, cyber and telecom law program at the University of Nebraska’s law school and the acknowledged expert on the topic, told The Post that jamming generally is not considered “a use of force.” But he acknowledged it remains unclear what the U.S. or other nations’ response would be if a commercial satellite were attacked. “It is untested whether hitting a commercial satellite rises to the level to justify an armed attack response,” he noted. “It’s easy to say that a lot of these things are unsettled, because they are. But they’re becoming more and more relevant.”

That was one reason a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies last year that looked at how conflicts could play out in space included a commercial space system being attacked by another country.

“We did that deliberately because we thought this was an area of policy where it’s not clear how we would regard an attack like that and how we would respond,” said Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at CSIS and one of the authors of the report. “We were strongly urging policymakers to focus on that question, and I don’t think we have the answers yet.”

Brian Weeden, the director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, a think tank, says it’s quite possible a commercial company could become a legitimate target in an armed conflict.

“If a commercial company is selling data to a belligerent in an armed conflict, and that belligerent is using that data for targeting purposes, it’s very likely the commercial actor could be a party to the conflict,” he said. “Another option could be that that commercial satellite is a legitimate military target.”

Or perhaps the launch vehicle. That’s something Virgin Orbit executives say they have taken into account as they consider a military role for their satellite launch platform, which intrigues the Pentagon because it launches its rockets from under the wing of a 747 airplane and not vertically from a fixed launchpad. That means a military client could launch a rocket hundreds of miles from a known military base and “just put a satellite up pretty much unwarned,” said Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit’s CEO.

But Virgin Orbit also recognizes that such a launch in time of war could be seen as participating in the conflict. In that case, which Hart said was a rare and extreme example, it would look to replace its civilian pilots with military personnel.

“We certainly wouldn’t want to be directly involved in armed conflict,” he said. The company “could supply the system” to the military, he added. But “we would expect Air Force pilots to be piloting the mission, which is certainly not very hard to achieve,” he said.

From the very beginning, space has always involved military activities. Both NASA and the Russian space programs had their roots in military activities, and China’s space program has raised alarms over the years because a rocket that can deliver people to orbit can also deliver a warhead thousands of miles away.

Commercial space flight adds a new wrinkle to that, said Beard, who is editor in chief of the Woomera Manual on the International Law of Military Space Operations, which seeks to help guide the policies around military space operations

“There’s no reference guide to turn to. There’s no comprehensive discussion of military activities in space. And yet, space has always had an awful lot of military activities,” he notes.

A spokesperson for Planet, the company that’s provided hundreds of images of Russian military activities in Ukraine, said the company is “continuing to provide imagery to our partners in governments, air and relief organizations, data analysts and media.” But the spokesperson declined to share “specific names of companies or governments that we’re providing our data to.”

A spokesperson for Iceye, a satellite company based in Finland, was also vague, saying it is aware of several initiatives “looking at gathering available intelligence. We are in contact with these representatives and are trying to coordinate with them.”

But not everyone in the industry thinks satellite companies should be publicly releasing the imagery from Ukraine.

“I wish they wouldn’t share it with major media organizations because anything they publish the Russians see as well, which defeats the purpose of intelligence,” said Marc Bell, the CEO of Terran Orbital, a satellite company.

Several of the U.S. satellite companies have contracts with the Pentagon and intelligence agencies. But since such work is largely classified, it is difficult to know the extent and scope of the work, according to military analysts.

And it’s entirely possible that the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies are seeing any sensitive imagery before the public does.

“It does appear that the agencies have a sort of first-use right” agreement with the satellite companies, Beard said. “But then that material still belongs to the company, and they’re allowed to release it.”