The War in Ukraine and the Intelligence Revolution

Japan Chair Fellow (Nonresident)
U.S. service members with 3d Battalion, 3d Marines; 3d Radio Battalion, III Marine Expeditionary Force Information Group; and 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, gauge equipment on a Versatile Radio Observation and Direction on Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, Nov. 16, 2021. Marines with 3d Battalion, 3d Marines participated in a joint electronic warfare training event with 3d Radio Battalion, III MIG, and U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division where Marines and Soldiers learned and effectively u
US service members participated in a joint electronic warfare training, where Marines and soldiers learned and effectively utilized electronic warfare equipment in smaller sized combat elements to enhance combat lethality. (US Marine Corps photo by Patrick King)

This article appeared in Japanese in Gendai.

An intelligence revolution is said to be taking place in the war in Ukraine. The US government has thoroughly disclosed detailed secret information, including the Russian military's operational plans and the start date of the invasion of Ukraine in advance. In addition, commercial satellites, social media and other means of information gathering not previously used in warfare, particularly open-source intelligence, are playing an important role.

Thorough disclosure of secret information by the Biden administration

On 18 February 2022, at a press conference over the weekend just before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, President Biden stated that he was convinced that President Putin had made the decision to invade Ukraine. When asked on what basis, President Biden responded succinctly, "we have a significant intelligence capability."1 On 23 February, the day before the Russian invasion began, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated unequivocally that Russia will begin its invasion tomorrow.2

This series of announcements by the US Government has two significant implications. The first is the high intelligence capability of the United States. US intelligence agencies accurately detected the highly secretive information about President Putin's decision, including the date of the start of the Russian invasion. The deployment of weapons, such as tanks and fighter jets, is relatively easy to detect through images taken by satellites and reconnaissance aircraft. However, the inside of the mind of other countries' leaders is not as easy to unravel.

Second, such highly secret information was made public at the press conference. Until then, it has been common practice for such secret information to be kept strictly secret from those outside the government. This is because disclosing confidential information would put the source of the information in grave danger. In particular, if the source is HUMINT, the source's life may be in danger.

In 2017, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is said to have defected a CIA agent who was at the heart of the Russian Federation Government.3 This agent was considered to be a top-level confidential source of information and was said to have been able to take photographs of documents on President Putin's office desk and transmit the images to CIA headquarters. However, fears arose that Russia might detect the agent's presence, so the CIA launched a special exfiltration operation, which is only carried out in an emergency4.

After the agent's escape, there are said to be no more CIA agents operating in the heart of the Russian Federation government. However, if the information released by the Biden administration had been attributed to HUMINT, it would have placed the source in grave danger as Russia would have identified the source of the information. In addition, even if the US intelligence activities were not by HUMINT, the same intelligence-gathering tools would no longer be available as Russia would take countermeasures.

Purposes of the Biden Administration's Disclosure of Information

Three possibilities have been raised as to the purpose of the Biden administration's disclosure of information at such a risk. The first is to deter war, i.e., to dissuade President Putin from invading Ukraine.5 Apart from the press conference mentioned above, the US Government has also released a lot of secret information. For example, in January 2022, before the start of the Russian invasion, the US government revealed a Russian saboteur's operational plan. The operational plan was that Russian saboteurs would create a pretext for the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces through a self-staged incident.6 Making such a plan public to the international community, Russia would have been forced to change its plans, which could have delayed the start of the invasion or even force it to be called off. However, the Biden administration's disclosure of information consequently failed to achieve its objectives and did not deter the Russo-Ukrainian war.

The second is the unity of the international community. The Biden administration began to release information about a Russian invasion of Ukraine in December 2021. Initially, however, NATO leaders and many experts did not believe this. Against this backdrop, the US Government gradually created an environment in which the international community was united in its support for Ukraine by repeatedly releasing information about Russia's operational plans and President Putin's decision to start the war. Many articles point out that the strong unity of the international community immediately after the outbreak of the war in terms of strong economic sanctions against Russia, acceptance of displaced persons from Ukraine, and material assistance to Ukraine were largely due to the prior disclosure of information by the US government.7

The third is to counter false information made by Russia. At the start of its invasion of Ukraine, Russia claimed that it would conduct a special military operation to rescue the oppressed population of Russian origin in Ukraine.8 Russia made similar claims upon its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. This claim was intended to create the false perception that the Ukrainian side is also at fault. In fact, at the time of Russia's annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, support for Ukraine by the international community was limited, partly due to the effect of these Russian claims. However, in the current Russian incursion, this Russian claim has been largely unaccepted by the international community. This is said to be largely due to the continuous release of secret information by the United States.

The New Role of Open-Source Intelligence: Drive Recorders in War

Thus, during the war in Ukraine, the United States disclosed a wide range of secret information. This disclosure has been aimed at deterring war, uniting the international community, and countering false information. It was unparalleled in history in its scale and speed. In addition to the release of such secret information, open-source intelligence, such as commercial satellites and social media, which is available to all, has played an important role.

Open-source intelligence, such as that published in newspapers and magazines and available to anyone, played an important role even before the development of commercial satellites and social media.9 In 1992, the Deputy Director of the CIA stated that over 80% of the CIA's analysis was based on open-source intelligence. Since then, with the advent of the internet, this percentage became even higher.

In the war in Ukraine, such open-source intelligence plays a new and different role from previous wars. At the end of March 2022, when Ukrainian forces retook the Ukrainian city of Bucha, the international community was shocked when a large number of civilian bodies and mass graves were identified. Russia claimed that this was a Ukrainian fabrication. In response, Western media used commercial satellite images to prove that the bodies lying in the streets of Bucha and the mass graves had existed since the Russian military occupation.10

In mid-February, shortly before the start of the invasion, Russia falsely announced that it had begun withdrawing its troops from the Ukrainian border. In response, the Secretary General of NATO showed commercial satellite images and clarified that this announcement was false.11

Ukraine also created a mechanism for Ukrainian citizens to provide information to the government using an official app.12 Many Ukrainian citizens have reportedly used the app to provide the Government with evidence of Russian military movements and illegal activities. The US military and US intelligence agencies also continuously provide Ukraine with information on Russian military actions and operational plans, as well as evidence of illegal activities by Russian forces.13 Ukraine publishes this information on its government website and publishes evidence of Russian military atrocities to the international community.

Western countries have praised the accuracy of the information Ukraine is disseminating.14 If the information transmitted contains lies or exaggerations, the credibility of even correct information is questioned. For this reason, Ukraine made every effort to disseminate accurate information, even in the chaotic situation immediately after the start of the Russian invasion.

Thus, information transparency is an important weapon in the armory of democracies against the aggression of autocratic states.15 Open-source intelligence, as if it were a drive recorder, is a record of evidence of wrongdoing in war and evidence to refute false claims.

Japan's National Security Strategy, approved by the Cabinet on 16 December 2022, also stated that the country should strengthen its ability to respond to information warfare in the cognitive domain. The war in Ukraine has shown that open-source intelligence is an important weapon in responding to cognitive warfare, which attempts to manipulate people's perceptions through false information.

Commercial Satellites of Increasing Importance in Open-Source Intelligence

As discussed above, in the war in Ukraine, in addition to the disclosure of secret information, open-source intelligence available to anyone, such as images taken by commercial satellites, is playing an important role. This phenomenon is said to continue not only in the current war in Ukraine but also in the future.16 In particular, in today's world of disinformation, it is important to carefully collect and preserve evidence of war crimes in order to hold people accountable for them.17

However, there are significant risks associated with the release of secret information.18 In particular, the release of secret information by HUMINT can put sources at risk for their lives. In 1962, the Soviet Union attempted to deploy ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons in Cuba. The first person to provide the secret information to the US was Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet military intelligence officer. When the Kennedy administration confronted the Soviet Union at the UN Security Council, the United States proved its allegations by releasing aerial photographs that provided evidence of the construction of a missile base in Cuba. Six months later, Penkovsky was executed by the Soviet Union.

The release of information gathered by means other than HUMINT also carries risks. For example, the release of images taken by a dedicated military reconnaissance satellite would reveal the performance of that reconnaissance satellite, making it easier for other countries to take countermeasures. If countermeasures are taken, the budget spent on that reconnaissance satellite would be wasted.

Given these risks, commercial satellites will become increasingly important in the future. The dramatic improvement in the performance of commercial satellites in recent years has made information from space available to anyone who wants it, including private researchers and journalists.19 The number of satellites launched has increased dramatically. There are now more than 5,000 satellites orbiting the Earth, some as small as a loaf of bread. Such small satellite constellations pass over the same location many times a day and can detect shortchanges that were previously difficult to detect. Their sensing capabilities are also improving, with some having a such resolution that they can even identify road signs and road conditions.20 Constellations consisting of a large number of satellites are also resilient to satellite-destructive weapons held by China and Russia.

The battlefield is said to be becoming transparent due to the increasing number of commercial and other satellites, and this poses new security challenges.21 For example, anyone will be able to see the detailed status of defense installations and activities of their country, making them easier targets for attack.

However, images taken by commercial satellites would bring many benefits to democratic countries. As was done in the war in Ukraine, publicly available commercial satellite imagery would be highly effective in deterring war, uniting the international community, and deterring and collecting evidence of war crimes. If a country were preparing to invade a neighboring country, the release of images showing evidence of such an invasion might increase the international community's condemnation and force the country to abandon the invasion. Even if an invasion were to take place, the international community could respond in unity. Furthermore, constant surveillance from space would have the effect of deterring future war crimes.

Thus, the use of commercial satellites for security (dual use) has significant advantages in terms of the public availability of information. However, when utilizing commercial satellites operated by companies from other countries, they may not be available at the time and place required by the home country in the event of an emergency. Therefore, when utilizing commercial satellites in the security sector, it will be important to consider their domestic production.

The war in Ukraine is undergoing an Intelligence Revolution, with the release of secret information and the increased use of open-source intelligence such as commercial satellites. It is important to take these changes in the environment into account when considering future security.

This article appeared in Japanese in Gendai.