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Satellite Images Help 'Pierce the Fog of War'

A series of satellite-image studies completed by the AAAS Geospatial Technologies Project may suggest new methods for civilian researchers to spot early-warning signs of cross-border war.


Scenes from the Russia-Ukraine conflict: In July 2012 (above) the fields outside Novocherkassk, Russia, near the Ukraine border, showed no activity, but by 30 March 2014 (below) hundreds of combat vehicles, tents and support facilities were present. | Image © 2014, Digital Globe, NextView License; AAAS Analysis

Research by the AAAS team, including insights to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, is "hitting at a huge and very important question," said Noel Dickover, senior program officer at the PeaceTech Lab, which is affiliated with the United States Institute of Peace (USIP): "What if peace-builders had access to geospatial information in near-real time to look at incidents of violent conflicts before they arise? How would that change our world?"

Satellite images captured before and after seven cross-border conflicts — described on 11 March at an event — revealed four key warning signs of impending war, said Susan R. Wolfinbarger, director of the AAAS Geospatial Technologies Project. Specifically, image analysis revealed details about the movement of materials and troops as well as new infrastructure and military camps in regions roiled by the end of colonialism in Africa and South/Southeast Asia, and by the fall of the Soviet Union. The project was funded, through a competitive grant process, by the USIP, which convened the meeting, where Wolfinbarger and her colleagues shared lessons learned from their case studies, and announced a new website that will feature a "practitioners' guide" for other researchers who want to leverage satellite-image analysis.

Evidence of troop movements could be seen in satellite images from all seven conflicts, said AAAS Program Associate Eric Ashcroft. In Africa, for example, a new road with access to the disputed border between Djibouti and Eritrea seemed to signal the buildup of military activity before a 2008 conflict. Military mobilization of troops was more directly visible before the 2001-02 conflict between India and Pakistan. The sudden emergence of new infrastructure also marked the start of a conflict at the Cambodia-Thailand border in 2008, and shortly after a 2011 referendum made South Sudan an independent state, "you could see a large amount of materiel moving through the space, presumably to the front lines" at the Sudanese border, Ashcroft said.

The Geospatial Technologies Project, established ten years ago, had previously assessed satellite images of damaged Syrian World Heritage sites, the destruction of communities in Zimbabwe, industrial gas flaring in Nigeria, and an array of other human rights and environmental threats. The virtually real-time Russia-Ukraine analysis, completed in 2013-14 with USIP support, "marked the first time that this AAAS program had expanded to explore a broader category of potential applications," Wolfinbarger noted. "It was also the first time that we were able to analyze images while the conflict was still evolving. We think it represents an important step toward the civilian analysis of cross-border conflicts."


From left, Noel Dickover, Eric Ashcroft, Susan Wolfinbarger, Jonathan Drake, Katherine Wood | AAAS

Dozens of large, otherwise-unaffordable satellite images, contributed by the U.S. Department of State, allowed AAAS to begin analyzing the conflict in mid-March 2014 — weeks after unidentified gunmen in green uniforms seized government buildings and appeared at airports in Crimea, Ukraine, said Jonathan Drake, AAAS senior program associate. Image analysis, completed less than a month later, covered a total of 36,000 square kilometers and revealed roadblocks, an influx of military vehicles at airbases, naval blockades, and other pivotal events as the conflict escalated.

Satellite-image analysis can help "pierce the fog of war" by confirming or overturning reports about what is happening on the ground during conflicts, Drake said. After NATO released satellite images that seemed to reveal a buildup of Russian forces along Ukrainian border towns, for example, a senior Russian military official disputed the allegation, but NATO's assessment was corroborated by the AAAS analysis. "The claim that the [NATO] imagery depicts [military] exercises that took place in the summer of 2013 lacks credibility," AAAS reported.

The first commercial satellite was launched in 1999, and now there are eight offering image resolutions of one meter or less — close enough to see tents, craters, and sometimes people, Wolfinbarger said. Costs can be prohibitive, however: a single, small image can cost $250 or more, and to analyze each location requires (at minimum) an image captured before and after a conflict or event of interest. Commercial satellites also do not acquire images of the whole globe continuously; they capture specific scenes upon request from a buyer, and images may be shot from an angle that obscures key details.

In the future, the emergence of smaller "micro-satellites" that continuously scan the planet may potentially support more automated analysis of regions over time, Ashcroft noted. Those images are consistently captured from a ninety-degree angle, he explained, and so they can be precisely aligned on top of each other. Commercial satellites will remain essential to AAAS research, he added, because they can quickly snap any scene, and timeliness is critical for studying cross-border conflicts in real-time.

"This is cutting-edge research, and it also has practical applications," said Katherine Wood, USIP grants advisor.

Noel Dickover of the PeaceTech Lab agreed. "Up until recently, the ability use geospatial analysis to identify troop movements in preparation for violent conflicts was more the purview of professional militaries," he noted. As more images become available for civilian analysis, he said, "you can envision scenarios in the very near future where ad hoc groups would have the ability to crowd-fund the cost of the imagery, and you already see in the humanitarian space where they are doing the analysis themselves. Imagine if that happens to the peace-building world … the implications are fairly vast."