A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 1, 2023

How Russia's Weak Satellite Intelligence Contributes To Its Ukraine Failures

New reporting reveals that Russia suffers from - among many other insufficiencies - a significant satellite intelligence gap with Ukraine. 

With Sputnik, Russia launched the space race, but it has not been able to keep up with the west. It leads in military satellites but many are old or dedicated to specific tasks and incapable of multi-purposing. Ukraine, by contrast, has adapted commercial technology and receives much more accurate intelligence on Russian positions and movements. To try to make up the difference, Russia employs 'reconnaissance in force" which is very costly in terms of lives and equipment. JL 

Mark Sumner reports in Daily Kos:

One of the biggest factors in this war turns out to be a satellite gap. And the nation that launched the first satellite is losing. One of the features of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been the “reconnaissance in force,” in which platoon-size units are sent forward until they make contact with the enemy, then the information they obtain about Ukrainian positions—indicated by drawing fire—is used to (target). This has casualty rates as great as “human wave” attacks. The reason Russia does this is it doesn’t have enough intelligence satellites. Their fleet of eyes-in-the-sky is old, designed for other purposes, and incapable of giving the real-time, high-quality view of the battlefield you would expect them to have in 2023.

The Ukrainian military reports that “there is a continuing trend of increased number of cases when groups of Russian personnel escape from their units.” 

This reportedly includes 50 Russians who have deserted in the area around Starobilsk, well back from the front lines. It’s unclear if these are troops who recently returned from an area of intense fighting, or if they’re trying to avoid going there in the first place.

UPDATE: Friday, Mar 31, 2023 · 2:27:20 PM EDT · Mark Sumner

Yesterday, the number of reported Russian attacks took a jump to 80. That’s the highest number in the last five days, but still lower than any date in the first half of the month (or in February). But today, the number nosedived again.

During the day of March 31, Ukrainian Defense Forces repelled more than 30x enemy attacks. The fiercest battles remain to be for the settlements of Bilohorivka, Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Marinka.

However, I wouldn’t read too much into this. Once again, look at the image above. No one is in a hurry to get out there and slog through a foot of snow on top of all the mud on top of people shooting at them every step. 

The Ukrainian general staff reports that all these attacks by Russia were “futile.”

One of the constant features of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been the “reconnaissance in force.” This process, in which platoon-size units are sent forward until they make contact with the enemy, then the information they are able to obtain about Ukrainian positions—often indicated by drawing fire—is used to evaluate the next steps. This kind of operation has casualty rates that are often as great as those in the “human wave” attacks in which Russia sent troops across open terrain to face prepared defensive positions. 

But here’s a question: Why did Russia do this? It’s one thing to say that they have little regard for the lives of their troops, but Russia certainly has high regard for winning, for capturing Ukrainian territory and advancing. Why proceed in such a foolish fashion? One that not only has a high price in men and materiel, but which often fails to deliver enough information to make the next assault any more effective?

One reason, reported this month in Popular Mechanics, is pretty surprising. The nation that launched the first satellite, and has continued to be one of the world’s biggest “space powers” over the last sixty years, doesn’t have enough intelligence satellites to tell them what’s going on. In fact, their fleet of eyes-in-the-sky is old, designed for other purposes, and just generally incapable of giving Russia the kind of real-time, high-quality view of the battlefield that you would expect them to have in 2023.

Russia has 160 satellites in orbit. Which sounds like a lot … until you consider that SpaceX has around 3,500. Of course, SpaceX’s satellites are almost all designed for internet communication, not spying on objects on the ground. Only that’s kind of the point. Russia’s satellites aren’t designed for that purpose, either.

Sputnik prior to launch in 1957
Sputnik prior to launch in 1957

Russia does have some spy satellites, of course, but the majority of what it has aloft are satellites for communications and to support its GLONAS location system—an alternative to the U.S.-launched GPS. Even some of Russia’s dedicated spy satellites are so purpose-built that they can’t help on the Ukrainian battlefield, like a satellite that tracks warships in the Pacific ocean.

As a result, Russia gets high-quality imagery of the battlefield only once every two weeks. That infrequent availability of images doesn’t just explain why Russia is often left fumbling forward like a man going through a dark room with his hands stretched ahead of him. It also helps to explain one of the big mysteries of the war: Why isn’t Russia using its missiles to attack more strategic targets?

“Because of a lack of reconnaissance capability, Russia is not able to use its high-precision weapons in the planned way,” Luzin told Popular Mechanics. “That’s why Russia started its campaign of missile terror against the cities and civil population of Ukraine.”

Why is Russia conducting reconnaissance in force? Because it doesn’t have good-quality intelligence on Ukrainian positions.

Why is Russia directing missiles at infrastructure rather than concentrations of troops or equipment? Because it doesn’t have good-quality intelligence on Ukrainian positions.

That’s not all. Going back to the beginning of the war, Russia infamously failed in its version of “shock and awe.” The number of air and missile strikes it conducted in advance of rolling tanks over the border was much lower than expected. They were also far less effective. The result was that many of Ukraine’s air defenses and aircraft were left intact. Ukrainian jets and helicopters are still flying on the battlefield today—a factor that few expected at the war’s outset. Russian planes and helicopters are still being shot down by air defense weapons that survived Russia’s initial attack.

Why has Russia never been able to obtain air superiority in the whole course of the invasion? Because it didn’t have good quality intelligence on Ukrainian positions at the war’s outset.

One more thing. If there’s any area where Russia came into the war with an even more lopsided advantage than it holds on tanks, it’s artillery. Ukraine came into the war with around 1,100 Soviet-era towed and self-propelled guns. Russia brought around 4,800 to the fight, most of them self-propelled.

BILOPILLIA, UKRAINE - MARCH 24: Group of police members stand near destroyed police station on March 24, 2023 in Bilopillia, Ukraine. Russians forces constantly shelling the territory of the Sumy Oblast with various weapons, including self-propelled artillery and mortars. (Photo by Andriy Kramchenkov/Suspilne Ukraine/JSC "UA:PBC"/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)
A police station destroyed by Russian shelling. Bilopillia, Ukraine. 

Over the course of the war, Western forces have sent around 400 more guns to Ukraine, including longer-ranging weapons that allowed them to compete with Russia’s best. However, for months Russia enjoyed an advantage in both numbers and range. However, instead of taking out the Ukrainian artillery, Russia used its artillery like it used its missiles—to pound towns and cities, reducing places where Ukrainian soldiers could conduct defense and push them back slowly. 

Ukraine now reports that it has destroyed 2675 pieces of Russian artillery. Oryx puts the verified number at just 562, compared to 252 verified losses of Ukrainian artillery. In recent days, Ukraine has been on an artillery hunt, sharply increasing the number of guns it reports as destroyed over the last month. Why, given Russia’s range and numeric advantages, have they not blown more of Ukraine’s artillery away?

Because Russia doesn’t have good-quality intelligence on Ukrainian positions.

If it has seemed that Russia has fought this war like a half-blind bear, stumbling forward until it hits an obstacle, then feeling its way for some alternative, squandering its best weapons on low-value targets, wasting both men and opportunities … that’s because this is true.

On the other hand, Ukraine is getting better quality imaging from commercial providers “at least twice a day in favorable weather conditions.” Those images are also better quality than what Russia gets from its own fleet. In addition, Ukraine is able to use high-precision GPS to guide HIMARS rockets with extreme accuracy. And it can use Starlink to give it what Russia never seems to have—universal and secure communications. 

Even high-quality images twice a day isn’t really enough for tactical planning. But it certainly beats getting lower-quality images twice a month.

One of the biggest factors in this war turns out to be a satellite gap. And the nation that launched the first satellite is losing. Drones can certainly help to fill this gap, which is why the Russian Orlan-10 reconnaissance drone is one of the most common (and the most shot-down) UAVs in the conflict.

Today at my home, we’re expecting 110 kph wind gusts, large hail, flash floods, and a high probability of tornadoes. That’s springtime in Missouri. I’ll probably abandon my mobile home after this update goes live, as I retreat to somewhere more solid to ride out the storm.

But the last couple of days in eastern Ukraine have seen spring weather of a different sort; a late-season snowstorm that has dropped a dozen centimeters of heavy, wet snow over much of the region (see top image), so don’t be surprised by new videos that once again have a lot of white in the background. Also, don’t be surprised if this slows any potential counteroffensive in the region.

The end of the Battle of Kyiv happened so quickly that, at the time, we didn’t even know what we were watching. The idea that Russia would roll back out of such a large area seemed incredible. It still seems incredible. On the first day it still seemed that Russia was just pulling back to regroup. Then came the second day—this day, one year ago.

On Tuesday, Gen. Mark Miley testified before Congress on the state of Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. 

According to Miley, roughly 6,000 Wagner mercenaries remain in eastern Ukraine. He broke these from what he called “20 to 30 thousand Wagner recruits,” primarily from Russian prisons. Most of these forces are involved in the attack on Bakhmut, and Miley didn’t mince words in describing the situation.

"It's a slaughter-fest for the Russians. They're getting hammered in the vicinity of Bakhmut, and the Ukrainians have fought very, very well.”

Oddly, Miley said that Wagner and other Russian forces, “For about the last 20, 21 days, have not made any progress whatsoever in and around Bakhmut.” It would be nice if this were true, but it’s not. While Russian forces outside the city seem to have been all but halter, those Wagner mercenaries inside Bakhmut are still slowly picking their way toward the center, block by block.

Though it might be understandable if everyone, even Wagner, was taking a day off from trying to advance today.


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