GEOINT Lessons Being Learned from the Russian-Ukrainian War

The Ukraine war shows lessons that the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) community can observe, learn, and consider an incentive for change

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Note: This paper presents the key judgments of the contributors and areas where their study indicates that more thought is required. It is critical to acknowledge that lessons are being gleaned from various perspectives. We fully acknowledge that as observers rather than direct practitioners in the conflict, our observations and comments are influenced by the freedom and limitations inherent in this position. All four authors are USGIF members.

The conflict in Ukraine has provided glimpses into the potential methods and employments of forces we may see in future conflicts. One of the disciplines we see being utilized to great effectiveness is the application of Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) capabilities—largely openly available and commercial. The Ukraine war shows lessons that the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) community can observe, learn, and consider an incentive for change.

Key Drivers

The use of GEOINT capabilities over the last two years in Ukraine highlights some potential implications for the GEOINT community. Some conclusions we can draw based on the conflict to date are:

  • The war in Ukraine displays how the successful employment of geospatial intelligence leverages technologies and innovations in the organizational, technical, and human domains of warfare.
  • Platforms and sensors, such as small commercial drones, manned aerial platforms, and commercial high-resolution and non-literal modality space systems such as radio-frequency (RF) and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) have changed operations and outcomes.
  • Network-centric warfare where systems and groups of people on one side of the conflict are hyperconnected deliver information at greater speed, scale, and relevance than their opponents.
  • Precise positioning allows precision weapons to counteract the effect of massed fires.
  • “Battlefield Big Data” is being collected by sensors in space and on non-traditional platforms such as small drones and smartphones. The utility of this data is being improved by using artificial intelligence (AI). 

The Ukraine Conflict is a Case Study in Modern Warfare

Some of the modern warfare concepts playing out during this conflict will have implications for the GEOINT community to consider as the tradecraft and related education and training evolve, including:

Hybrid Warfare. This is a relatively new term with several definitions. It can be thought of as warfare that involves a multi-layered endeavor intended to destabilize a functioning state and polarize its society. By combining kinetic operations with subversive efforts, the adversary’s goal is to have an impact on the opponent’s decision-makers. To avoid attribution, the aggressor conducts clandestine actions such as political warfare, irregular warfare, information warfare, and cyber warfare that leave no credible trail.

Platforms and Sensors. The Ukrainians had been operating with Turkish drones, U.S. communications networks (Starlink), and U.S. commercial imagery (Maxar and Planet) before the invasion. Since the invasion, they have been working with SAR from Finnish provider ICEYE, U.S. provider Capella, and other commercial providers, including RF GEOINT from U.S. provider HawkEye 360. The increase of ISR capabilities such as drones, manned aerial platforms and commercial high-resolution space systems has created a more transparent battlefield and a threat to military formations. Non-traditional platforms have been widely used in the conflict. These include the extensive use of cheap small drones and smartphones. For example, the company HawkEye 360 maintains a constellation of satellites that monitors radio frequency (RF) signals. HawkEye 360 sensors capture extensive Global Positioning System (GPS) interference activity over Ukraine. Other space data companies, such as Spire, use nanosatellites with that track aviation traffic. The Finnish startup ICEYE provides imagery from its SAR satellites to Ukraine. Small drones have had a significant impact, demonstrating their effectiveness in reconnaissance, target acquisition, and providing real-time situational awareness.

Information and Organizational Fusion. This is where systems and groups of people are hyperconnected to deliver information at greater speed, scale, and relevance. Information fusion involves technology for integrating information from multiple sources to produce estimates. Organizational fusion involves agreement to share data and/or technology among government, international, business, and citizen groups. Hyperconnectedness is characterized by the habitual use of devices that have a common network connectivity. Structurally, this suggests that the intelligence disciplines operate as a merged entity at all levels. The successful utilization of Ukrainian High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) multiple rocket launcher system can be attributed to a robust integrated information architecture, efficient reconnaissance, and innovative application of off-the-shelf drone technology.

Precise Positioning. The war demonstrates a dominance of precision weapons over massed fires. The mantra, “precision (fires) beats mass (fires)” has been repeated frequently. In 2022, Dana Goward published an article discussing GPS and the Ukraine war, which highlighted how GPS signals underlie modern warfare, from navigating surveillance drones and precision munitions to enabling mobile radios. Goward noted the importance of precise positioning as a military tool was underscored by a Russian television commentator saying the nation could “blind NATO” by shooting down all GPS satellites. To make the point, Russia demonstrated before the war began that it could destroy a GPS satellite in space. Russian forces have been regularly jamming signals from the U.S. GPS as part of the war. However, ironically, Russian forces also use GPS. Downed Russian aircraft have been found to have GPS receivers taped to their dashboards. The number and use of precision munitions will grow as several defense companies have proposals to produce cheap, long-range precision weapons. Employment of precision fires additionally provides insight into a decision cycle that puts a premium on expenditure of a weapon to neutralize a target.

Battlefield Big Data. In addition to space- and aircraft-mounted sensors, non-traditional platforms such as small drones and smartphones have collected massive amounts of geospatial data. The war in Ukraine has also uniquely involved civilians collecting digital data and developing OSINT in online open-source investigation communities geolocating evidence. Some see this as the Ukraine’s armed forces outsourcing parts of the kill chain, with civilians providing crowdsourced geolocated target information to the Ukrainian Army by using their smartphones. Such information can be verified and cross-checked against data points provided by other smartphone users and/or other intelligence sources. The Ukrainian armed forces can then direct fire onto the targets that civilians have identified. On the Ukrainian battlefield, civilians have become sensors, extending the targeting cycle into civil society. This has the effect of creating a more informed targeting process but also means that anyone with a smartphone may become a target of enemy action, if the logic holds that using a smartphone to photograph an enemy column constitutes a hostile act.

Machines for Improved Speed and Quality of Decisions. AI and the availability of data accelerate the rate and increasing the quality of analysis. In terms of John Boyd’s Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (“OODA”) Loop, AI allows Ukraine to succeed by observing, orienting, and deciding more comprehensively and faster than the Russians. This rapid “OODA Looping” resets the Russian decision process and causes confusion. Ukrainian officers use AI at combat operations centers to plan strikes at Russian positions. Ukraine employed AI to process data, analyze the situation on the battlefield, and select targets. Ukrainian officers use algorithms to make crucial battlefield decisions, in what has been called algorithmic warfare, and digital models of the battlefield have penetrated the “fog of war.” Data—updated constantly—powers the AI engines, which in turn deliver enemy location information to Ukrainian field commanders. After each kinetic strike, the battle damage assessments are fed back into the network to strengthen the predictive models. While not a true technical and organizational fusion, it is moving that direction. The Ukrainian military has been trained to use the AI software in Germany and Poland. GEOINT developed using AI plays a crucial role in establishing a tempo that contributes to effective command and control of military activities, enabling the capacity to learn and adapt more rapidly than the opposing forces.

The X-Factor: Adaption and Innovation. Open-source analysis frequently misses how Ukraine integrated so many diverse capabilities to achieve the success they have so far demonstrated. A few of these nontechnical success areas relate to environmental (terrain and weather), geopolitical, economic, social, and logistical matters. However, Ukraine’s ability to adapt seems to be a dominant factor in their capacity against what was assumed early in the conflict to be Russia’s overwhelming force. Ukraine adapted and innovated to fill the performance gaps identified through combat experience. In an article on Ukraine’s battlefield adaptation from August of 2022, Mick Ryan noted, “American scholar Frank Hoffman has written that ‘the ultimate test of military preparation and effectiveness does not end once a war begins. On the contrary, history strongly reflects the enduring phenomena of learning and implementing change during war…The requirement that a force must adapt while it is in combat is built into the inherent nature of war.’ The rapid pace of change in war results in an interactive approach where belligerents are constantly seeking advantage and adapting at many levels concurrently. This adaptation battle, witnessed throughout the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is a core part of warfare. The ability to succeed in this adaptation battle, underpinned by institutional learning culture, must be a central part of contemporary military force design.” 

Implications for U.S. and Global Military Intelligence

Exploring the implications for both the United States and global military intelligence, we speculate about the future implications for the United States and military intelligence worldwide.

Operational We have observed throughout the conflict so far that precision diminishes mass. The unknown is how much Ukraine has demonstrated, even with censorship and curated releases of information by all sides, that it uses precision weapons with more military effectiveness than the Russians. 

Effectiveness of Global Commercial GEOINT for Strategic and Battlefield Use Ukraine has openly appealed for foreign commercial imagery, particularly SAR data, and their operational effectiveness at locating the Russian military has not been constrained by weather.  The Ukrainian lack of an indigenous government/military intelligence satellite system has not constrained their military intelligence.

Big Data Ukrainian civilian and military organizations have been using generic digital devices like cell phones and commercial quadcopter drones and specialized devices like armed drones for purposes as diverse as precision tactical attacks, battle damage assessment, air defense sensors, and equipment identification.

AI Swings the Data. Ukraine is using computer analytics and machine learning to integrate rapidly a wide number of data sources, in many cases more quickly than the Russian military can respond.

There’s no space between tactical and national intelligence. Ukraine has integrated its forces from platoon level to national level with multi-level security domains. This was best illustrated by the 30 March New York Times photograph of a Tactical Operating Command near Bakhmut showing commercial icons on Monitor 6 and a cell phone with commercial apps on the desk of a Tactical Operating Command near Bakhmut.

OSINT must be at the table. The Ukrainian demonstration of what can be done with unclassified intelligence illustrates what can be done if classified information is considered an offset of unclassified.  

A rebalancing of intelligence work roles. The Ukrainian ability to manage the large volume of geospatial data should indicate a re-evaluation of the collection management discipline. Any additional number of geospatial intelligence analysts would not be capable without a probabilistic schema for quickly collecting/acquiring geospatial/imagery data. Said differently, with a first-round draft pick, would you select a collection manager or a geospatial analyst?

Broader Implications for the U.S. Military

While the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has long had the capability to fight as the Ukrainians are doing, it also has several challenges related to policy, doctrine, standards, training, and recruiting.

Policy. The U.S. has a number of self-imposed and historical constraints that fall under the following headings:

  • The U.S. model for funding recent conflicts has been based on appropriations of Overseas Contingency Operations (“OCO”) funding. This limits preparation time if warning exists and lengthens response time if warning does not happen.
  • Legal. Contractual and licensing challenges for U.S. commercial imagery and geospatial data processes can constrain users’ options for sharing. This has fiscal, contractual, and liability implications that are not widely understood.
  • The adaptation of changes to U.S. military intelligence production based on the Ukrainian experience is likely to be debated and possibly contested by existing agencies, services, and authorities.
  • Acquisition/Procurement. While the U.S. military incorporates Operational Needs Statements (ONS) and Joint Urgent Operational Needs Statements (JUONS), there is not a standard process, except in declared conflicts, for rapidly integrating U.S. technologies into operational environments, and there is no standard process for rapidly integrating foreign technologies into operational environments. This is one policy/resourcing observable that could be the “X-Factor” making a positive difference in Ukraine. Defining the difference between procurement, acquisition, and rapid integration and implementation is critical.

Doctrine. The alliances currently assisting Ukraine are using global commercial geospatial data, collection, analysis, and communications infrastructure. In any future conflict, it is reasonable to expect that opposing nations or surrogate groups will be able to access GEOINT and employ the same infrastructure against those nations currently assisting Ukraine. It is reasonable to expect that Chinese, Russian, and Iranian geospatial technology, training, and tradecraft will be available to nations or groups opposed to American, European, or Allied interests. What DoD lessons-learned organizations, like the U.S. Army Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL), are engaged in reviewing this conflict?

How does this affect the GEOINT Community?

Waging the war using GEOINT in new ways will also have implications for USGIF member companies and educational institutions.

Education. There are myriad aspects of this conflict that USGIF educational institutions should consider when updating curricula, for instance:

  • The integration of drone and satellite data has implications for GEOINT education programs, and most if not all GEOINT curricula do not address this integration. Courses on topics like GIS for Disaster Support or GIS for Homeland Security might consider adding related coursework. 
  • The implications of integrating new technologies into “live” operations point toward scenario-based exercises or training evolutions, as opposed to classic classroom lectures, labs, and assignments. Academic accreditation organizations, (including USGIF) may need to therefore reframe some of their measures of learning effectiveness. For example, some academic programs in global security programs offer multiple-week crisis scenarios for their students in addition to their for-credit curriculum offerings.
  • The increasing complexity of geospatial data management and acquisition for operational needs raises the question of a separate curriculum for 21st Century collection management. Some GEOINT practitioners feel that the idea that the NRO and NGA serve as the exemplary model for 21st-century collection management is predominantly held by the NRO and NGA themselves.

Training. The GEOINT-related events in Ukraine have emphasized the importance of the impending revision of the USGIF Essential Body of Knowledge (EBK), the Foundation’s educational framework to support academic partners GEOINT curricula. For example, some of the technologies in the 2019 EBK are outdated (e.g., chemical photography) and other geospatially dependent intelligence technologies (e.g., social media image analysis) were not included in the 2019 revision, although they are now becoming more common in intelligence analysis globally.

International Partnerships. The involvement of multi-national organizations and other nations with GEOINT capabilities in Ukraine (e.g., European Space Agency, Finland, Germany, Turkey, and non-European nations) portends future multi-national geospatial efforts. While the U.S. still leads the profession in the international arena, the Ukrainians have reached out to other countries with nascent or growing GEOINT capabilities. USGIF’s initiatives to continually strengthen and expand the community’s collaborative partnerships will be even more effective through the adoption of an international approach.

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