A Oct. 7, 2023, satellite view shows smoke plumes along the Gaza-Israel border.

A Oct. 7, 2023, satellite view shows smoke plumes along the Gaza-Israel border. Gallo Images/Orbital Horizon/Copernicus Sentinel Data 2023

Hamas attack shows space-based sensing can’t see everything

A new Pentagon constellation will close some gaps, but the need for “old-school” human intelligence will remain.

Why didn’t the U.S. and its allies’ spy satellites catch Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel? In part, physics.

Satellites in geosynchronous orbit are too far away to catch much detail, and there aren’t enough satellites in low-Earth orbit that can deliver constant, high-resolution imagery, according to industry experts. 

While space-based sensors aren’t a “cure-all” for U.S. intelligence needs, Hamas’s recent attack proved the need for persistent coverage from orbit, said Todd Harrison, a longtime defense analyst who is managing director of Metrea Strategic Insights.

The Pentagon has already started an effort through the Space Development Agency to build a network of military satellites in LEO, called the “Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture.”

“If anything, the surprise attack by Hamas should spur nations to increase the capacity and coverage of their space-based ISR systems. The U.S. and its allies like Israel have not yet built out the full suite of space-based ISR capabilities that they could, such as highly proliferated LEO constellations that provide continuous global coverage for optical, infrared, radar, and RF sensing,” Harrison told Defense One.  

In the wake of the Hamas attack, the National Reconnaissance Office, the spy agency in charge of America’s intelligence satellites, is working with other intelligence agencies to make sure that U.S. satellites are capable and relevant, NRO’s deputy director Maj. Gen. Christopher Povak said Tuesday at a Mitchell Institute event.

Asked if the NRO will conduct an internal look at its reconnaissance capabilities to avoid another surprise attack, Povak wouldn’t comment on future moves. He said the NRO is ensuring that the National Security Agency and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency have the resources they need from his agency. 

The Space Force official remained confident in the NRO’s ability to detect threats around the world. 

“We in the NRO and our partners across the intelligence community are not losing sight that there are hotspots, potential areas of concern that happen all around the world, and that's where NRO systems I think provide both a tactical and strategic advantage. We can see the world, we can sense the world and we can hear everything that's happening in the world at any given time,” Povak said. 

Officials are still investigating why exactly the attack, which has led to a death toll of almost 3,000 Israelis and Palestinians, was unexpected. Over the past week, many officials have called this event an astonishing failure for Israel’s intelligence forces. 

The U.S. intelligence community is also currently combing through evidence surrounding Iran’s role in the war, according to National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. 

Iran is “complicit” in the attack as they have provided funding and training for Hamas’s military, but the administration has no confirmation Iran knew about this attack in advance, Sullivan said Tuesday during a White House press briefing.

“We are talking to our Israeli counterparts on a daily basis about this question. We’re looking back through our intelligence holdings to see if we have any further information on that. We’re looking to acquire further intelligence,” Sullivan said.

Hamas appears to have used “old-school techniques” such as in-person comms to share information, said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

“Relying on ISR techniques that use technology to remote-monitor adversaries can come up short if the subject is able to avoid signals or movements that can be easily detected and analyzed from space or electronic sensors,” Clark told Defense One.  

Clark also suggested the U.S. to use more AI-enabled algorithms to assess information, like human intelligence, social media, and physical movements. 

“China uses these capabilities for social control of their own populace. Although it would be illegal and inappropriate to use domestically, the U.S. intelligence community could employ these techniques using open-source and classified intelligence information available on adversaries,” Clark said.