August 30, 2022
OSINT’s influence on the Russian air campaign in Ukraine and the implications for future Western deployments
On February 24, the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, Twitter user OSINTtechnical tweeted forty-eight times, highlighting battle damage assessments of Russian aircraft, confirming explosions at Melitopol airbase, and showing US B-52 and UK Typhoon air tracks over Poland. OSINTtechnical, like many others on Twitter, has provided live, detailed battlefield updates. From the comfort of an unclassified laptop, these citizen journalists have increasingly organized into online communities which, as coined by Bellingcat founder Eliot Higgins, are known as “public intelligence agenc[ies] for the people.” These amorphous, yet powerful public-run organizations have reported on Russian air activity with a level of detail and analysis traditionally reserved for state intelligence agencies. Indeed, governments recognize this and are increasingly turning to such organizations for support.
Though this diffusion of intelligence capabilities has strategic benefits—highlighting Russian atrocities and countering disinformation, for example—this new paradigm in public intelligence analysis also raises concerns. Increased battlefield transparency can motivate combatants to behave ethically, but it can also unintentionally lead to reduced military effectiveness, stemming from constraints on decision making and a resultant narrowing of strategic options.
The open-source intelligence revolution
Open-source intelligence (OSINT) has always been an essential element in understanding adversary action, though state agencies have traditionally regarded it as secondary to the efficacy of highly classified sources. From the creation of the Foreign Broadcasting Monitoring Service (FBMS) in 1941 to the National Open Source Enterprise (NOSE) in 2006, political and military decision makers have recognized that important information is outside the classified realm, and that such information can be used to supplement or confirm classified sources. The democratization of information and technology, however, has begun to provide organizational alternatives to the traditional monopoly that states possessed on intelligence functions. Easy data access, fueled by a cultural appetite to share, either inadvertently or purposefully, has lowered the technical bar to gathering and exploiting information. This newfound dependency on the cyber environment has created digital footprints that can be exploited and turned into intelligence for those with the time and expertise to do so. Wikileaks was one of the first organizations to exploit digitization, exposing the fragility of states to the combination of insider threats, revolutions in data storage, and public accessibility. However, the concept of OSINT has continued to evolve with private citizens, no longer reading stolen reports, but creating their own intelligence upon which journalists, the public, and even governments rely.
Netherlands-based investigative journalist group Bellingcat and London-based research group Forensic Architecture have been at the forefront of this public OSINT revolution since the 2011 Syrian civil war. Alongside organizations such as the Digital Forensic Research Lab, they boast a broad offline and online networked analytical resource base, including experts with a deep understanding of online analytical toolsets, Eliot Higgins and his team at Bellingcat identified Russia’s ‘little green men‘ as the perpetrator of the July 2014 Malaysia Airlines (MH17) crash, revealed the Kremlin’s intelligence operatives responsible for the March 2018 Skripal poisonings in the United Kingdom, and have established many sought-after international workshops teaching OSINT techniques. Bellingcat and its analysts have proven that OSINT, in the hands of the public, has impact commensurate with information collected and analyzed by state-level intelligence agencies. The Russian invasion of Ukraine coincided with these organizations’ rising maturity, experience, and credibility.
The role of OSINT in the Ukraine air war
Since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war, analysts such as Rob Lee, have published almost four thousand tweets that include battle damage assessments, Russian weapon videos, and conflict analyses, including an ongoing record of Russian airpower losses. Bulgarian investigative journalist Christov Grozev has also provided an in-depth analysis of disinformation and possible Russian war crimes; in fact, he appeared in front of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee to discuss OSINT evidence of these crimes. Lee and Grozev may be working without government resources, but their work is credible and respected, bringing transparency to a conflict built on Russian subterfuge and disinformation. Like many others, they have made it possible for public audiences to examine Russian air operations, assessing their tactics and effectiveness at a level of analytical detail traditionally reserved for well-resourced state intelligence agencies.
One of the most significant and controversial air strikes in the Russia-Ukraine conflict thus far was Russia’s strike on June 27, 2022, targeting the Amstor shopping mall in the Ukrainian city of Kremenchuck and killing at least eighteen people. Although Russia did not deny the mall had been damaged, it claimed the damage was from another airstrike that had targeted ammunition storage facilities nearby. Using open-source CCTV footage, geolocation tools, Sentinel 2 L1C satellite imagery, PLANET Skysat commercial satellite imagery, historic YouTube videos, blog posts from the mall’s retail chain, local social media, and video footage taken by survivors, Bellingcat produced an in-depth report that effectively discredited Russia’s version of events. Bellingcat’s success is just one example of how OSINT can bring transparency to air operations, and of the danger for states who rely on factual ambiguity, or are susceptible to the pressures of external audiences.
The role of OSINT in future air wars
According to former British Foreign Secretary William Hague, OSINT is influencing events in the war, not just reporting them. While the use of OSINT in Ukraine has weakened Russia’s control of the information environment, could public dissemination of OSINT hinder US and allied air forces in future wars? Recognizing that public opinion matters for both Western political and military decision makers is critical in framing the OSINT challenge. As the character of conflict changes, reflecting the wars of choice during the past three decades, so has public expectation concerning jus in bello. Clean conflicts, using increased remote and asymmetric means have created low public tolerance levels for operational errors. Unfortunately, public expectation will be challenged by an OSINT environment capable of bringing high levels of transparency to the battlefield.
In this new information operating environment, the speed, reach and abundance of online information sources may result in Western air forces losing control of the narrative. In turn, this may encourage risk-averse targeting strategies that prioritize civilian or political perceptions over operational effectiveness. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has reinforced that the foci of Western public analysis will be social media and Internet-based rather than sourced from the traditional mainstream press. The uninhibited nature of social media dissemination, alongside the speed and spread of the analysis will mean that the Western military may be severely challenged in controlling the narrative.
The war in Ukraine is a good example of a clash between a state and OSINT over narrative dominance. The Russians lost their narrative control very early in the conflict. OSINT stripped away credibility from the Russian messaging, leaving a nonsensical and hollow information strategy. Although the Western approach to strategic communications differs significantly from Russia’s, it would be hubris to believe that the West is incapable of ill-advised information strategies. The opportunity for Western information warfare campaign to suffer the same fate as Russia certainly exists. In the West, enhanced battlefield transparency could trigger increased public scrutiny, encouraging a risk-averse and limiting targeting strategy. With the potential to link military personnel to specific airstrikes, targeteers and pilots could face increased pressure, with the risk of every error, whether by negligence or chance, being examined in minute detail and publicly dissected. If OSINT enthusiasts and similar actors can uncover and reveal a highly classified GRU hit squad, then the risk of exposure to Western air force personnel remains real and increasingly likely.
Preparing for tomorrow’s air wars in the age of OSINT
Enhanced public scrutiny of future battlefields has a potentially significant benefit in motivating ethical behavior on behalf of military personnel, yet transparency also has operational impact. Air forces need to urgently prepare to operate in this OSINT environment, finding new ways to engage in a contested and fast-moving narrative space while providing robust direction and protection for operational commanders, targeteers, and aircrew who will face new pressures and intense scrutiny in the execution of their roles.
- First, air forces should exercise and wargame the inevitability that actions may be captured, shared, and analyzed, leading to possible limitations on targeting strategies, including substantial expansions of Restricted and No-Strike Lists.
- Second, air forces should also examine how they can better protect their operational commanders, aircrew, and targeteers from identification and exposure from public intelligence analysts, balancing a philosophy of openness against the duty to protect.
- Finally, at the political and military strategic levels, attention should be paid to how foreign governments can exploit public intelligence agencies and their analysts. A Chinese equivalent of a “public intelligence agency” has not appeared thus far, but once adversarial states recognize the power of truth in the public arena, hybrid or state-backed “public” organizations are likely to follow suit. These organizations, established in the idealist model to increase transparency, but with state direction, will blur the civilian-military lines and further intensify the contest within the information environment, albeit transformed into a battle of “truths.”
There is now a new answer to “who watches the watchers?”: anyone, anywhere, at any time.
Robin Kemp recently graduated from the US School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, Maxwell AFB, and is now teaching in the Department of International Security at the US Air Command and Staff College. He is currently working toward his PhD, researching how contemporary OSINT capabilities acknowledge military activities. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of the Royal Air Force or the US Air Command and Staff College.
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