Don's Weekly, 27 November 2023: Part 3
(…continued from Part 2…)
During the Gulf War of 1990-1991*, the US National Reconnaissance Office wasn’t even officially acknowledged yet, despite operating for 30 years and being featured in the Washington Post. It was charged with building, launching and operating satellites and then disseminating the information collected. It did a very good job building effective satellites on time and under budget. (Instead of returning the money they saved, they started building a lavish set of headquarters buildings. The whistleblower complaints led to public acknowledgement of the NRO). It also did a very good job collecting information. The problem was with processing and dissemination.
The war moved so quickly that by the time ground commanders received (formerly useful) information, the situation had moved beyond that information by days or even a week. As a consequence, an organization was formed that would specialize in processing and disseminating information to the appropriate end users in a timely fashion. After a few name changes, it was called the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, or NGA, and it was supported by many ground stations. Data was processed and distributed much faster under this arrangement.
Russia has 160 satellites in orbit. About 100 of them are military or dual purpose satellites, and 19 are imagery or signal collection satellites. Russia has two optical satellites launched over 7 and 9 years ago. This means they are close to the end of their working life not because the components of the satellite are worn out, but because the fuel needed to maintain or move them to different orbits to observe different locations may be close to being expended. On top of that, Russian satellites don’t have the same level of detail as US satellites as each pixel in a Russian satellite image represents 50 cm, whereas the published information on US satellites say each of their pixels represents 5 cm. Commercial satellite resolution ranges from 25 to 50 to 70 cm per pixel. The altitude of a satellite can affect that resolution. A commercial satellite increased its level of resolution from 72 cm per pixel to 50 by lowering its altitude from 500 km to 450 km. The downside is that a satellite in a lower altitude will cover a smaller portion of the ground, but better resolution can reveal important information.
Sometimes clouds, fog and smoke will block optical satellites from observing the ground. Synthetic Aperture Radars (SAR) use radar to penetrate those obstacles. Russia built and launched three SAR satellites, the first in June of 2013, the last in May, 2023, and two of them are still working. The US by itself has nine acknowledged SAR satellites. The greater the number of satellites, the more ground you can cover in a timely fashion. Thermal imagery also can see through clouds, but some of the Russian satellites only cover Ukraine every other day.
And satellites can record different waves across the spectrum and infer data from it. For instance, the Netherlands can detect illegal dumping sites by using an algorithm to identify a unique spectral signature. So imagine what military or dual-use satellites can do with data it collects across the spectrum.
GLONASS is Russia’s answer to GPS, but it needs 24 satellites to be fully functional. It has 23 and many are nearing end of life. 90% of their components are imported, so they’re unable to launch replacements. The heavy lift rockets (some satellites weigh several metric tons) have their own issues and only three of them have been used since 2014.
Another factor is the ability to store and transmit data. Commercial satellites usually send about ten minutes worth of data before they are out of range of a ground station. Most of their ground stations are located near the poles because those locations are most often transited by satellite orbits, but Amazon and Microsoft are building more ground centers allowing satellites to capture and transmit more data. It usually takes 48 hours between the commercial capture of an image and its availability online. The fastest post was one minute after a satellite captured an image of a ground station’s parking lot and immediately transferred it to be processed and stored online.
The lack of Russian ground stations is a shortcoming that introduces delays in their dissemination of information. Russia has only one military data relay satellite. Another is their organizational ability to assess the data and place it in the hands of the appropriate end users, similar to the shortcomings of the US in 1991.
While we do not know all of Russia’s capabilities, we know that many of their satellites use technology that is a couple decades behind US and European satellites, and even some commercial satellites. We know that they have a limited number of satellites that can collect the data and a limited number of ground stations that can download the data. We know they have delays in processing the data and organizational issues in placing the data in hands of end-users that would find it useful. A Russian defense magazine said there were not enough satellites to obtain accurate targeting information for missiles such as Tsirkon, Kalibr, and Kinzhal, either for stationary or mobile targets, such as aircraft carriers. This makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for Russia to use its satellites to track troop concentrations or movement. The Russian navy’s magazine acknowledged the “negative state of affairs” in Russia’s space-based ocean surveillance program. In a mobile war, they would be of limited value. In a static war, there is some targeting value, as power plants, dockyard equipment and grain storage buildings are stationary targets.
Drones can provide some information that is inaccessible to satellites and vice versa, but the reality is that Russia relies almost entirely on their drones for information which is why it is so important for Ukraine to gain air superiority and blind the Russians.
Here is a civilian service that collects imagery at 30 cm per pixel and uses math to simulate a collection at 15 cm per pixel…https://blog.maxar.com/earth-intelligence/2020/introducing-15-cm-hd-the-highest-clarity-from-commercial-satellite-imagery
The primary mission of the six Bars-M satellites is to create maps for target date of Russia’s ICBMs…https://www.russianspaceweb.com/bars-m.html
Ukraine’s Power Grid
About a year ago, from October 2022 to April 2023, Russia attacked Ukraine’s energy grid with 1,200 missiles and drones. Every single non-nuclear power plant was hit and nearly half the transformers were destroyed. Ukraine’s power production was reduced to 50% of its pre-war capabilities, and its ability to move power where it is plentiful to areas where it is needed has been severely degraded.
While Russian drone attacks have continued, they’ve fired very few missiles in the last few months leading to the widespread belief that they are stockpiling them to attack and overwhelm Ukraine’s energy grid in the winter months…and snow has already fallen. In Kherson, 2,000 families were without power for several hours last week because of artillery attacks. Even without any additional Russian attacks, the demand for power in the winter months will be high enough that rolling blackouts will be unavoidable.
Ukraine has 19 nuclear reactors but four of them, at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in occupied Enerhodar, have been shut down due to sporadic Russian attacks. (After the shutdown, the attacks stopped). That facility represented 21% of Ukraine’s nuclear power, but even without it, nuclear power provides 51% of Ukraine’s energy. None of the other 15 nuclear power plants were attacked last year.
Ukraine has enough energy from nuclear power alone to provide for its basic non-peak energy needs, but it needs power from coal, gas and hydro power plants to meet the needs during the colder winter months. It also needs a distribution network to move the energy once it’s been generated.
The lightly damaged power plants have been repaired but the other power plants were only partially repaired or not repaired at all, and the non-nuclear thermal power plants are only operating at 33% of pre-war capacity. Part of the issue was that Ukraine has had difficulty finding funding to repair obsolete thermal factories that use coal and release unfiltered pollution. (At the same time, some European coal plants (that had lower levels of pollution) were pulled out of retirement to meet energy needs as Europe transitioned away from Russian energy). But the biggest factor is that the energy grid took decades to build and the heavy damage could not be repaired in one year. Ukraine estimates that it suffered $8.8 in damages while the UN places the figure at $10 billion. So far, they repaired $280 million worth of damage. Due to shortages, very little progress has been made since summer, when positive trends were reported.
The destruction of the Kakhovka dam had little effect on Ukraine’s production of electricity, but the flood destroyed over 200 power distribution substations and dozens of local boiler houses.
It takes a year to build a transformer and 42 of Ukraine’s 94 transformers (45%) were destroyed or damaged. Transformer production has been just as slow to increase as ammo and weapons, and other nations have requirements, as well. Ukraine bought every transformer in the world that it could find but its stockpile is lower now than it was last year. It stored some of the spare transformers out of the country to keep them safe from missile and drone attacks.
It’s not all bad news. Ukrainian air defenses are much stronger than last year, with the deployment of Patriot, Iris-T, SAMP-T, and NASAMS air defense systems, which have proven to be very effective against missiles. 80 Gepards will be deployed in Ukraine by the end of the year and they have proven very effective against drones and cruise missiles that flew within range of their 35mm guns. But Gepards only have an effective range of 4000 meters, which means they are a point defense weapon and there are more than 80 targets that need to be defended in Ukraine. The range of the missile systems against aircraft is much longer, but against missiles it is between 15-60 km.
Ukraine has also hardened some target sites with sandbags, concrete walls and even cages filled with rocks. They are untested and may prove to be effective to some degree, or they may be as effective as the ‘cope cages’ placed over tanks to protect them from drone attacks.
With the increase in air defense systems, a lot fewer Russian missiles and drones will hit targets in Ukraine, but Ukraine’s energy grid is a lot more fragile than it was last year and there are more targets than there are air defense systems. Even without additional damage from Russian attacks, it is expected that 10,000 families will be without power for hours due to rolling blackouts in peak power demands during the cold nights. Cities and citizens have more small power generators now than at the start of last winter, so it is likely they will endure, but plans for evacuations from affected cities remain in place.
The energy grid is not just about heat and survival, it is also about production, business and communications. It is another aspect in the battle of wills and the war of attrition.
When Russia invaded in February, 2022, the Ukrainian and Moldovan energy grid was disconnected from the Russian energy grid. They had planned ahead of time to connect to the European energy grid through Romania and expected it would take a year. It took three weeks. Because of this, when much of Ukraine’s grid was damaged, they were able to transfer energy from northwest Ukraine to southeast Ukraine through Romania…https://www.zf.ro/companii/energie/corina-popescu-swift-energy-romania-putini-stiu-noaptea-rusia-atacat-22195647
On the eve of Holodomor Remembrance Day, Ukraine reports that 75 drones were launched, mostly at Kyiv. This report says 71 were shot down. Another said 66 were shot down…
The 75 Shahed drones Russia launched on Holodomor day is the most in one attack since they started using these drones in September, 2022…
Mobile groups with MANPADS, heavy machine guns, and anti-aircraft guns shot down half of the drones…
Opposing drones are deliberately running into each other…
A Russian drone destroys a generator and damages a truck…
There are many links in the supply chain that can be attacked. There are the factories that produce materials, the big depots in the rear, the small depots closer to the front lines, and the trains and trucks that move the ammo and weapons between these places. There are an increasing number of videos showing trucks being attacked by M31 rockets, if they are in a convoy, and by drones if they are driving by themselves…
Another article on training, much of which has been discussed here. This speaks mostly about US and other allied responsibility, which is true enough, but Ukraine has its own shortcomings. They haven’t established any pipelines for replacements, NCO training and officer training. As mentioned earlier, the 47th and other brigades are receiving replacements that haven’t been fully trained and there’s no excuse for that. In a war of attrition, sustainability is key, and training to keep people alive is part of sustainability…https://mwi.westpoint.edu/its-time-to-ukrainify-us-military-assistance/
Mud just sucks…
Snow is better than mud…to a point. I read that it’s usually milder weather in the south of Ukraine but this is from Sunday near Odesa. The wind combined with low temperatures makes life really difficult on the front line and can create casualties…
9 meter waves, once in a hundred-year-storm…