The spy satellites with which the United States, Germany, France, Italy and Spain are contemplating the invasion of Ukraine

The electro-optical, radar and communications-listening space platforms that actively and passively observe the advances of Vladimir Putin's troops

PHOTO/USAF  -   NRO technicians feed images, audio and signals to the half a million government users in the Intelligence Community for analysts to extract intelligence and aid decision-making.

Nations with sophisticated electronic eyes and ears in outer space in their military arsenal have the ability to observe and listen to everything that is happening day and night in Russia's invasion of Ukraine in the early hours of 24 February. 

Dozens of silent spy satellites belonging to NATO countries pick up communications between the Kremlin and the Russian military high command, while tracking the movements of columns of Russian tanks and combat vehicles as they penetrate across the Ukrainian plains towards Kiev, Kharkov, Belgorov and Mariupol.

PHOTO/ESA - The primary mission of electro-optical and radar platforms dedicated to earth observation is to capture millions of images of interest to the national security of their respective countries.

They also scan from space the positions of the batteries of howitzers, cannons, rocket launchers and surface-to-surface missiles that support the advances of Russian combat units. And, of course, they assess the damage they, along with Moscow's attack planes and helicopters, have inflicted on air bases, port facilities, radar installations and defensive positions of the Kiev government. 

The countries of the Atlantic Alliance, especially the United States, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, continuously receive large amounts of data that they convert into intelligence reports for their civilian and military authorities. They have reallocated the flight plans of their space platforms so that they pay preferential attention to the five areas where Russian troops are spilling over, occupying and controlling Ukrainian territory.

The United States is the nation with the largest and most technologically advanced collection of spy satellites. The organisation responsible for developing, manufacturing, launching and operating these secret orbital platforms is the National Reconnaissance Office, or NRO, a kind of Space Intelligence Service that works around the clock, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The data and images are transferred for analysis to the Pentagon, the National Security Council, Antony Blinken's State Department and the various US intelligence agencies. 

PHOTO/USA Senate - Christopher Scolese (left) has been the director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the organisation responsible for developing, manufacturing, launching and operating America's dozens of secret orbital platforms, since August 2019.
 Their capabilities are "not available"

Headquartered in Chantilly, Virginia, the NRO is one of 16 organisations that make up the federal government's Intelligence Community. Under the direction of Christopher Scolese since August 2019, a former top NASA official, the main mission of the electro-optical, radar and eavesdropping platforms dedicated to espionage is to capture millions of images of national security interest, as well as to intercept, decrypt or block hundreds of billions of conversations or messages in any band of the electromagnetic and radio spectrum.

For whose benefit? Christopher Scolese makes it clear: "The half a million government users in the national Intelligence Community, the military, legislators, and our nation's key decision-makers".

PHOTO/NSA - Image decrypted by the National Security Agency showing some of the detail that can be achieved by the resolution of the NRO's KH-11 electro-optical satellites. It bears the top secret stamp in the lower left-hand corner.

The NRO conducts several launches into space each year and places a varying number of new and replacement spy satellites in orbit. Half a dozen flights are planned for 2022, with more than a dozen spacecraft to be placed in orbit. The first of the year was the USA-326 observation satellite, which flew on 2 February. What is its technology? Pure secrecy. When asked about its orbital parameters and observation or listening capabilities, the answer is a laconic "not available".

And that is because, as is evident, the design and performance of all NRO satellites are top secret. Official information about them is practically non-existent, and the information that is disseminated exaggerates or undervalues the data, which in any case leads to confusion and misinformation. This is rarely the case, as is the case with the KH-11 electro-optical spy satellites, of which the Hubble Space Telescope is a spin-off for scientific applications of its early models

With a take-off weight estimated to be between 13 and 17 tonnes, the KH-11s are placed at an altitude of between 545 and 800 kilometres. Their external appearance is very similar to that of Hubble, but they are oriented towards the Earth rather than the Universe. Their resolution in the visible and infrared spectra is estimated to be less than 20 centimetres, as compared to the Hubble telescope, for which reliable data are available. Manufactured by the Lockheed Martin Corporation, the last to be placed in orbit was USA-314 in April 2021.

PHOTO/ULA - One of the few things that the NRO does not reveal about the spy satellites are their logos, which are drawn on the tops of the rockets they place in orbit. Pictured here is the USA-247 or Topaz 3 radar platform, launched on 6 December 2013.

But KH-11s cannot see the Earth's surface in the presence of clouds. That's what synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites are for, which can see almost priceless details of military infrastructure and weapons systems. The most recent one sent into space is USA-281, whose official codename is Topaz 5, in orbit since 12 January 2018. Shrouded in the utmost secrecy, its radar is known to have a large antenna capable of obtaining spectral images with a resolution of less than 50 centimetres. Manufactured by Boeing, they are located at an altitude of approximately 1,100 kilometres.

Listening and deciphering communications 

The NRO also has a whole panoply of electromagnetic intelligence devices, ELINT (ELectronic INTelligence), and signals devices, SIGINT (SIGnals INTelligence), which scrutinise, jam or decrypt communications. Among those dedicated to SIGINT missions is the Orion family - also known as Mentor - manufactured by Northrop Grumman. The latest to be placed in geostationary orbit at an altitude of 36,000 kilometres was USA-311, which lifted off on 11 December 2020. 

PHOTO/White House - President Biden's choice, lawyer Avril Haines is the director of National Intelligence, responsible for coordinating its 16 intelligence agencies. Under Barack Obama, she was deputy director of the CIA and deputy to the National Security Council.

Other SIGINTs include the Trumpet family, of which there are at least three generations of platforms. Manufactured by Boeing and weighing between 3.9 and 4.5 tonnes, they have large ground-facing antennas and instruments to pick up electromagnetic signals. The latest to be positioned at an altitude of 36,000 kilometres was USA-278, which took off on 24 September 2017 with highly sensitive SBIRS HEO-3 infrared early warning infrared sensors to detect ballistic missile fire.

ELINT missions are carried out by the Intruders, which weigh about 3.2 tonnes and are located at an altitude of 1,100 kilometres. Their primary task is to locate and track warships and submerged submarines through their coded radio transmissions. They are launched in pairs, the latest being the two USA-274A and B, on 1 March 2017. 

In Europe, the German armed forces - the Bundeswehr - have five veteran SAR radar satellites, known as SAR-Lupe, from the national manufacturer OHB. Weighing almost 800 kilograms, they were launched into orbit one after the other at an altitude of 500 kilometres between December 2006 and July 2008, but most of them are now out of service. Starting this year, they will be replaced by three examples of the new SARah family, weighing 1,800 kilos and with much better resolution.

PHOTO/ULA - The most powerful, expensive and reliable US launchers are at the disposal of NRO spy satellites at space bases in Florida, California and even abroad, in the interest of US national security.

Italy and Spain have also opted for SAR radar satellites. The Government of Rome is in the process of renewing its fleet of four 1,900-kilogram COSMO-SkyMed X-band satellites in orbit at an altitude of 619 kilometres, launched between June 2007 and November 2010. They are being replaced by the 2.2 tonne COSMO-SkyMed NGs, two of which are already in space, the second on 31 January this year. The Spanish one is the 1.4-tonne Paz, owned by the company Hsidesat and deployed in February 2018 at an altitude of 514 kilometres. It provides exclusive services to the Ministry of Defence, supplying a large volume of images to the Defence General Staff. 

France has discarded radar technology and opted to take high-precision electro-optical technology to its ultimate consequences. At the end of 2021, it decommissioned its Helios 2 satellites, which it shared with Belgium, Italy, Greece and Spain, and replaced them with a pair of so-called CSO satellites, of which a third, financed by Germany, has yet to be placed in orbit. Paris is the only EU government with signals intelligence satellites (SIGINT). Just over three months ago - on 16 November - three platforms called CERES, each weighing 445 kilos, were sent up to 670 kilometres to capture and analyse integrated telecommunications traffic for President Emmanuel Macron.