Stacey Dixon, principal deputy director of national intelligence, speaks at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Stacey Dixon, principal deputy director of national intelligence, speaks at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo. Tara Copp

Satellite Firms Are Helping Debunk Russian Claims, Intel Chief Says

Will the Pentagon protect those firms from enemy attack? It’s a “fairly sensitive conversation,” U.S. Space Command says.”

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado—The U.S. intelligence community asked certain commercial satellite companies for help in the earliest days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and their imagery remains vital to countering Russia’s false claims, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said Tuesday. 

But the partnership raises new questions about what protections those firms might be owed if their actions make them a target. 

“Early on, we also asked a few commercial companies….and those of you who helped know who you are, helped us to rapidly make available imagery like the buildup that was happening around Ukraine’s borders to help shed a light on what Russia was doing,” Stacey Dixon, principal deputy director of national intelligence, said at the Space Symposium on Tuesday. “This allowed others to independently interpret the images, piecing them together with other information, and tell the world what was about to happen.”

Commercial imagery firms have documented the invasion of Ukraine like no previous war. HawkEye 360 has tracked Russian counter-space activities such as jamming. Maxar has documented Russia’s troop buildup and brutality on the Ukrainian people—on Monday, exposing mass graves in Bucha. 

Commercial satellite firms “can tell that story,” said  Gen. James Dickinson, head of U.S. Space Command, told reporters Tuesday. “They have the capability to show, illustrate what is actually happening. When that happens, that allows the department, particularly U.S. Space Command, to do the things they are not doing.” 

“We have exquisite capabilities,” Dickinson said. “So the more the commercial industry continues to mature, continues to grow, continues to provide those capabilities, the more I can take my assets and do the things only I can do.”

In its 2022 Space Assessment Report, the Center for Strategic and International Studies overlaid transmissions captured by HawkEye 360 satellites and married them with reports of jamming to locate Russian GPS jammers. 

“With multiple passes of the satellites over that area, you can start to figure out where those ellipses intersect, and that is the probable location of a jammer,” said Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at CSIS.

But when firms work so closely with one side in a conflict, does it make them a legitimate target by an adversary? And to what extent does the U.S. owe them protection? That discussion is still in the early stages, military and industry experts said. 

“You can probably expect that would be a fairly sensitive conversation,” Dickinson said.  “We do have…in some of our commercial integration agreements—…we do talk with our commercial customers about information we have, but you know, in the future, part of the strategy would more fully flush that out.” 

That broader discussion is needed, said Victoria Samson of Secure World Foundation, which released its report on global counter-space activities—and the unprecedented role commercial vendors find themselves in—on Monday.

“The commercial sector needs to be aware that there are national security implications to their work,” Samson said. “And they can't just skate by saying, ‘Well, we're commercial, it doesn't affect us.’ It absolutely does.” 

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the strategic implications of it, has become a turning point for military and commercial space activity. 

“We are living in the most complex and strategic time in at least three generations, the hinge of history,” Raymond said at the symposium. “We can not afford to lose space. If we do, we will fail.” 

“It’s a wake up call,” Kendall said. Russia’s invasion has underscored “the value of space capabilities. You’re seeing their value in terms of getting the truth out. You’re seeing their value in terms of enabling the fierce resistance that the Ukrainians are putting up … and commercial space is very much a part of that equation.”