Space has long played a crucial role in protecting global security and supporting the military in the field. What has changed in Ukraine, is the increasing role of commercial space. From the very first days of the war, where Russia carried out cyber-attacks on commercial providers to the ongoing support provided by startups to the Ukrainian military, the New Space industry has been right in the thick of it.
The War in Ukraine
First a quick recap of the situation as it stands in Ukraine in November 2023. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has resulted in a devastating human toll and widespread displacement. As of November 2023, over 10,000 civilians  have been recorded dead and more than 16,000 injured, though the UN believes the actual numbers are higher. The war has also left nearly 500,000 troops either dead or injured, with estimates of up to 120,000 Russian and 70,000 Ukrainian soldiers killed.
The damage extends far beyond loss of human life with enormous displacement, territorial losses, and a huge economic impact. The conflict has forced millions of Ukrainians to flee their homes. With a national population exceeding 41 million, about 17.6 million people now require humanitarian support . Over 5 million people have been internally displaced, and Europe is hosting nearly 6 million Ukrainian refugees. Russia now controls approximately 17.5% of Ukraine’s territory, including the annexed Crimea. As a result of the war and loss of significant territories, Ukraine’s economy shrank by 30% in 2022. Predictions for 2023 estimate modest growth of 1-3% . The exact financial toll of the war on Ukraine remains unclear.
Finally, the war in Ukraine has caused large increases in commodities prices, which has been a key driver of inflation globally. Russia’s invasion and the subsequent Western sanctions have disrupted global markets. Key commodities like oil, wheat and metals have witnessed price surges, triggering a global food crisis and contributing to recent increases in inflation. Western support for Ukraine has also been substantial, with the US alone committing over $43 billion in security assistance, supplying advanced weaponry and protective equipment .
New Space’s Role in the War
While militaries in previous conflicts have been primarily supported by government satellite assets, the commercial space sector has been integral to the Ukrainian war effort.
Commercial satellite imaging: Satellite imagery provided by commercial providers and that is shareable with allies has been integral to Ukraine’s defence. Satellite imagery has provided invaluable intelligence on Russian troop locations and movements. Satellite images post-attacks have assessed damage, such as after the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam incident. SAR imaging can monitor troop movements under diverse conditions (cloud and night). Infrared can detect artillery fire and locations of intense fighting.
Communication and coordination: Commercial satellite constellations like Starlink and Viasat have ensured that military units and civilian groups remain connected, especially during communication blackouts in certain regions. It has even been used to stream live feed imagery back from drones to command centres .
Open-source intelligence (OSINT) in Ukraine: Activists and independent analysts have used satellite images to track troop build-ups along the Ukraine-Russia border. This has allowed for real-time assessments of the situation on the ground.
GPS denial and its impact: Russian forces have deployed jamming equipment to interfere with Ukrainian military GPS systems, required for weapons targeting. Ukrainian forces are losing up to 2,000 drones per week as a result. Ukrainian forces have resorted to alternatives like terrain matching and supplementing GPS with communication satellite signals from commercial providers.
Radio frequency (RF) signal detection in Ukraine: The detection of RF signals from Russian communication hubs or moving battalions could indicate preparations for major offensives. Ukrainian forces can use this intelligence to anticipate enemy movements.
Role of SSIT portfolio in solving the problem
Several of Seraphim’s portfolio companies have provided support to the Ukrainian war effort since the conflict began. I’d like to highlight two companies: ICEYE and HawkEye360.
ICEYE, a Finnish SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) satellite company, has significantly impacted the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Its technology, which can image through cloud cover and darkness, provides an unparalleled view of ground activities. ICEYE delivered the capacity of one of its satellites to the Ukrainian government through a partnership with the Serhiy Prytula Charity Foundation. This ‘people’s satellite’, purchased with donations from Ukrainians, has since played a pivotal role. Within five months of its deployment, the satellite enabled Ukrainian Defence Intelligence to detect and target 7,321 pieces of Russian military equipment.
HawkEye 360 is significantly aiding efforts in the Ukraine conflict through its unique satellite technology. Established with the mission of offering commercial space-based RF data and analytics, HawkEye 360’s satellite constellation can detect radio waves emitted by communication equipment and other electronic devices. This capability allows for the identification of enemy troop concentrations, which is crucial for understanding troop movements and potential threats on the battlefield. In Ukraine, HawkEye 360’s capabilities provide invaluable insights that help in strategic decision-making on the ground. The company’s satellite data, combined with advanced analytics, offers a comprehensive view of activities, strengthening Ukraine’s situational awareness amidst the conflict.
The war in Ukraine has underscored the strategic value of commercial space technology in modern conflicts. As demonstrated by ICEYE and HawkEye 360, these innovations are not only reshaping the battlefield but also redefining the role of startups in global security.