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The ZAPAD-21 military exercise is a prime example of an event where GEOINT can benefit from the added context of OSINT.

I don't know about you, but I can't keep up. It seems like every conversation I have with my geospatial colleagues, I learn of another imaging satellite achieving orbit.

According to the latest database from the UN's Office of Outer Space Affairs, more than 500 earth observation satellites are currently capturing the visible spectrum. With the recent news that NGA's Director Adm. Sharpe may sign a new GEOINT strategy that declares commercial imagery the primary source for production, I can only imagine that we'll see close to 1,000 earth observation satellites in a few years.

Why are there so many earth observation satellites?

One of the leading drivers behind the earth observation satellite boom is persistence in the interest of national defense.

A well-equipped defense apparatus will want to effectively monitor adversaries at all times, leaving no doubt to their whereabouts and intentions. Remote-sensed imagery does an excellent job of this by providing strategic monitoring both day and night and even in the worst weather conditions. This is achieved by fully exploiting the electromagnetic spectrum through visible, infrared and radar imaging.

Although, it's important to understand that not all imagery solutions provide the observer with enough stare to satisfy tenacious monitoring, nor does it give the level of resolution to answer all of the sought-after contextual questions. What defines the capabilities of an imagery satellite also showcases its limitations.

For example, when listing the specifications for satellite imagery sensors, the most prominent factors are its resolution and revisit rate. This information provides the observer an idea of the expected target detail and how frequently the area will be imaged.

The latest commercial offerings allow near persistent stares anywhere on the earth with sub-meter resolution.

However, it would be foolish to think that adversaries were unaware of these limitations and may choose to conduct clandestine operations at optimal times to avoid detection. Or perhaps they're not worried about detection due to the resolution limitations that may deny accurate identification.

To solve these unknowns, a resourceful observer should look to other sources of information to complement their imagery collection.

Combining GEOINT and OSINT

One source proliferating across the intelligence realm is open source information or open source intelligence (OSINT). Due to its extensive availability and seemingly ubiquitous existence, OSINT quickly becomes the premier choice for intelligence collection.

With the evolution of the internet into real-time communications and fast information transfer, a great deal of actionable and anticipatory intelligence can now be obtained from public, unclassified sources. These widely accessible sources are better known as publicly available information (PAI) and are used to fill in the intelligence gaps that other sources can't provide.

As mentioned above, resolution and revisit rates are often discussed to understand the capabilities of a satellite. These two factors also play a role in what PAI is available. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't own a smartphone that has the capabilities to take terrestrial photos and upload them onto the internet. "Everyone is a sensor" is a common phrase I hear to describe this phenomenon. These events happen all the time and allow for greater resolution of observed events, allowing for further insight into what is occurring.

Read the blog on OSINT data collection: You still need humans, but automation is well worth the investment >

The role of OSINT and GEOINT at ZAPAD-21

Every four years, a joint strategic military exercise with the armed forces of the Russian Federation and Belarus takes place in multiple locations within Belarus and Western Russia. During these exercises, the world is treated to witnessing the kinetic capabilities of these two allied countries.

Monitoring a country’s order of battle (OOB) allows the observers to learn several things about these allied states. The OOB for a country includes hierarchical organization; command structure; strength; disposition of personnel; and equipment of units and formations of the armed force.

To properly monitor these activities and attempt to gain any intelligence, observers would task imagery satellites to capture the events as they unfold. However, as previously discussed, overhead imagery has limitations and cannot monitor all aspects of a country's OOB.

To make up for these constraints, observers should collect PAI to contextualize the activities displayed during these exercises.

Using PAI to supplement overhead imagery

PAI allows us to gain further insight into the strength, equipment, and participating units by collecting locally captured images. These overtly captured photos allow for identifying specific tactical gear that cannot be captured from overhead imagery.

Images captured at close, even intimate, range can provide a wealth of intelligence, such as:

  • Vulnerability analysis to disable pieces of gear in times of war
  • Document unit characteristics based on soldiers’ uniforms and badges for use in future identification when only one source is available 
  • Supply chain analysis based on soldier attire 

However, even a keen observer may be subject to denial and deception. Perhaps the items are only on display to confuse. Maybe the goal of the exercise is to get the observer to click on internet forums and give up attribution as to who they are. This is why corroboration of all sources is a prudent practice.

Managing attribution during OSINT/PAI collection

Controlling attribution — that is, the digital details disclosed by your browser and device to websites you visit — is essential when conducting OSINT/PAI collection online.

The details of your digital fingerprint, including your language and keyboard settings, time zone, geolocation, OS, browser, etc., are highly specific to you. Their particular combination could stand out to the webmaster of a site you’re investigating, and they could be used to uncover your actual identity and your intention while browsing their site.

Once an adversary knows who’s looking, you may not want to trust what you're seeing.

That’s why it’s so important to manage attribution during online investigations. By manipulating the details of your digital fingerprint, analysts can blend in with the crowd and avoid tipping off adversaries and subjects under investigation.

Factoring in these discussed elements will help countries safely recognize trends, capabilities and potential intent.

Authentic8-Preligens partnership for ZAPAD-21

During the military exercise, Authentic8 partnered with leading AI/ML imagery firm Preligens to bring a series of reports that monitor the events of ZAPAD-21. Combining the power of GEOINT and OSINT, a comprehensive understanding of the two countries' OOB was analyzed.

Preligens leverages VHR satellite imagery to analyze the activity of strategic areas of interest: ports, airfields, military camps, industrial sites. The GEOINT solution helps to detect, classify and identify objects of military interest automatically, and follow the evolution of critical areas at a glance.

Authentic8's Silo for Research is a purpose-built solution for conducting online research without exposing analysts’ digital fingerprint. With Silo for Research, safely pursue OSINT investigations across the surface, deep or dark web from a cloud-based browsing interface while controlling how you appear online.

About the Author

Thom Kaye
Thom Kaye

Thom has been active in intelligence analytics for over 25 years helping colleagues safely navigate online investigations.

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