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Researchers track secret Russian missile launchers in Ukraine using public satellite data

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Researchers track secret Russian missile launchers in Ukraine using public satellite data

The interference signature of an S-300 system in the Kherson Oblast, a Russian-occupied region of Ukraine. Credit: ESA/Tom Saxton

In the occupied far east of Ukraine, Russian forces are aiming waves of missiles against

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. Each of Russia’s state-of-the-art missile launch systems costs more than
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(A$150 million). They allow Russia to launch attacks from safe positions many kilometers behind the front lines.

The S-300 surface-to-air missile launcher is designed to avoid detection. Their locations are closely guarded secrets. However, using publicly available satellite images, we have detected telltale signs of the operation of these weapons that give away their location.

This is just one example of why the strategic and tactical use of publicly available data on the internet has become an increasing source of concern for militaries. So-called “open-source intelligence” (or OSINT) has become a

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of intelligence agencies worldwide.

As more and more data is digitized and placed online, open-source intelligence has become a powerful tool. Social media platforms, satellite images and leaked data can all be sources of intelligence information.

We have seen significant use of open-source intelligence via social media in the Ukraine conflict. The movements of soldiers and military vehicles have been widely documented. Russian information operations attempting to falsely portray Ukrainian forces as targeting civilians have also been

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Open-source intelligence is a cheap and efficient way for analysts to inform decision-making. In a conflict such as the Russia–Ukraine war, open-source intelligence can act as a force multiplier.

Tracking missile systems online

In 2018, researchers discovered an unexpected use of the

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, a public-access scientific satellite operated by the ********* Space Agency. It could
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the location of the ******* States’ Patriot surface-to-air missile systems. The Sentinel-1 picks up radar emissions from the missile system’s radar, which shows up as bands of interference in the imagery.

Surface-to-air missile systems are usually designed to be highly mobile, so they can be deployed anywhere to surprise enemies. Open-source intelligence means anyone with an internet connection may now be able to locate these assets.

This poses new challenges for military leaders. The strategies and processes they have developed to protect civilians, soldiers and critical infrastructure—as well as their own weapons and other assets—from ****** drones, missiles, or targeted ground assaults may no longer be effective.

How vulnerable are Russian systems?

For Russia and Ukraine, these challenges are playing out in real time. We used Sentinel-1 to locate active and mobile Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile systems in Eastern Ukraine—and if we can find them, so can anyone else.

How did we do it? First, we analyzed multiple social media sources for confirmed locations of S-300s. We then viewed Sentinel-1 imagery of these locations and increased the sensitivity to reveal radar interference from the missile systems. The interference patterns show the radar source sits along a certain line.

The above image shows how it works. With a known location, it took only a few minutes to acquire the image and reveal the radar interference. This image shows an S-300 system from the Kherson Oblast, a Russian-occupied region of Ukraine, which was neutralized days after the satellite captured the interference.

The S-300 is widely regarded as Russia’s counterpart to the US Patriot system. In Russia’s war on Ukraine, it is tasked with defending against missiles and aircraft but has recently been used to

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To date, only around

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S-300 missile launchers have been confirmed destroyed over the course of the war. This illustrates how rare and highly protected they are, reserved for protecting the most vital assets and regions of the Russian military.

For better and worse

The S-300 is exported to Iran, China and many other nations. Russia’s is not the only military that may be compromised by the location of S-300 systems through public satellite imagery. Of course, these systems need to be in operation to emit interference.

This grants advantages to non-state combatants and states with less sophisticated militaries. These forces may be able to locate and potentially ******** hundred-million-dollar assets with publicly available data.

Ukraine’s military has shown how efficient low-cost drones can be in destroying expensive air defense systems. Open-source data, such as the electronic emissions collected from scientific satellites, illustrates how ordinary and even innocuous tools can be used for warfare.

The overall ethical implications of open-source intelligence are mixed. Public data may be used by malicious non-state actors or ********** groups, for example.

On the other hand, analysts and journalists can use such processes and methods of data gathering and analysis to investigate war ******* and abuses of human rights or create more accurate reporting of events. The Institute for the Study of War, for instance, has employed satellite imagery and social media documentation to

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on Ukraine’s borders in 2021 and 2022, thereby exposing Russian intentions.

The future of open-source intelligence

Open-source intelligence, and the critical skills required to examine public data, have become increasingly important for militaries and intelligence organizations. However, open-source data platforms, such as satellite imagery provided by the ********* Space Agency, are likely to produce ongoing challenges for militaries.

How will the world respond? Institutions, business, government sites and other bodies may decide to cut off the flow of public data in order to reduce its unintentional impact.

This too would create challenges. Censorship of publicly available data would pose risks to transparency of information and degrade public trust in companies and public institutions. Removing public access to information would mean people and organizations with less money could no longer access it.

Provided by
The Conversation

This article is republished from

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under a Creative Commons license. Read the
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Researchers track secret Russian missile launchers in Ukraine using public satellite data (2024, May 22)
retrieved 22 May 2024

This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no
part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

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