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Spacepower in the Middle East: The Paradox of Strategic Depth and Transparency

An image of the Arabian Peninsula taken from space. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
An image of the Arabian Peninsula taken from space. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tragically, the Middle East has been the backdrop for changes in the character of war over the past few decades. With the rapid dissemination of high-resolution Earth observation satellites throughout the region, even more changes in the character of war are in store, argues ThorGroup’s Dr. John B. Sheldon.

The unique, open geography of the Middle East combined with the rapid dissemination of technologies such as high-resolution Earth observation satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles, mobile devices such as smart phones, social media, and the emergency of big data and artificial intelligence are causing a dramatic change in the character of war and diplomacy.

This change offers Middle East governments and others in and out of the region opportunities to enhance their national security, but at the same time can also restrict their ability to act in secrecy, or at least it will change expectations of how long such actions will remain secret.

A growing number of countries throughout the region are acquiring high-resolution Earth observation satellites, from Algeria and Morocco via Egypt and Turkey, through to Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. This trend is a dramatic change in the Middle East region where only ten years ago the only country that had such advanced technology was Israel, along with external powers such as the United States, France, and Russia.

On top of the growing number of Middle East countries acquiring high-resolution Earth observation satellites, there is a disruptive commercial phenomenon in satellite imagery also underway. Companies such as DigitalGlobe, based in the United States, and Europe’s Airbus Defence and Space have been providing Middle East clients with high-resolution satellite imagery for many years now, but their business model has been upended by the rise of companies like Planet Labs, Terra Bella, UrtheCast, BlackSky, and others that are building constellations of hundreds of very small Earth observation satellites that will provide almost ubiquitous, real-time coverage of the Earth at cut-rate prices.

This means that high-resolution satellite imagery will become increasingly available to not only governments and large corporations in the Middle East, but also to individuals and small organizations – to include criminal organizations and terrorist groups.

Spacepower is the ability in peace, crisis, and war to exert influence in, to, and from space, and until now has been something that only less than a dozen or so powerful countries – the United States, Russia, China, India, Japan, France, and several others – have been able to use.

With the dissemination of high-resolution Earth observation satellites, as well as ubiquitous commercial access thanks to Planet Labs and others, more and more countries in the Middle East – and around the world – are now finding that spacepower is also within their reach.

Furthermore, this technological dissemination will combine with the Middle East’s unique strategic geography to create a paradoxical situation for the use of military power and the conduct of geopolitics within the region.

Spacepower and Middle East geography

According to American strategists Geoffrey Kemp and Robert E. Harkavy, spacepower, as a set of satellite technologies, “has great advantages in the open desert terrain in which most Middle East wars have been fought.”

While the geography of the Middle East is far from homogeneous, it is predominantly composed of vast and open desert from western North Africa through much of the Arabian Peninsula and much of Iran. The exceptions to this predominant geographical feature include various mountain ranges such as the Taurus Mountains in Turkey and the Zagros Mountains along which lies the border between Iran and Iraq. Further, there are places such as the Nile Delta, a fertile and highly urban part of the Middle East, and the so-called Fertile Crescent that ranges from the banks of the Nile River through the coastline of the Eastern Mediterranean through Syria and Iraq.

Over centuries human beings in the Middle East have also altered the geography of the region through irrigation and other agricultural developments as well as through growing urbanisation throughout North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and Iran. For example, cities like Cairo, Egypt, and Tehran, Iran have urban populations of over 17- and 15-million people respectively. Additionally, older cities in the Middle East, such as Cairo and Damascus, are densely built and populated.

For the most part, this open terrain throughout the region is highly advantageous to the use of spacepower, allowing the data links from communications and navigation satellites unfettered access to users Earth observation satellites clear views of the region, aided by generally favourable weather conditions for most of the year. It is only in mountainous and densely populated urban areas that restrictions are imposed on the use of spacepower. Steep valleys and narrow, over-built streets with tall buildings, limit the effectiveness of communications and navigation satellite coverage. Earth observation satellites can certainly map these particular regions, but long shadows caused by mountains and buildings can also limit their intelligence effectiveness.

Spacepower and Strategic Depth in the Middle East

The strategic geography of the Middle East combines with the strategic attributes of spacepower to create an ideal region for the use and application of satellites.

These strategic attributes of spacepower are perspective, access, presence, and strategic depth, and they make spacepower a unique form of power for anyone able to wield it, though that power is exponentially enhanced when combined with diplomatic, economic, and traditional military power (land, sea, and air power).

The spacepower attribute of perspective allows satellites in orbit above the Earth’s surface from several hundred kilometres through to 36,000km in geostationary orbit coverage over great distances within and beyond national boundaries. Perspective, also known in military parlance as the ‘high ground’, comes from the wider view of the Earth’s surface provided by satellites.

From perspective comes the strategic attribute of access, where orbital mechanics, the Earth’s natural rotation on its axis, and the international legal regime provided by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST), allows satellites to gather data from, and communicate into, areas of the planet that are either politically or naturally inaccessible. For example, the international community has relied heavily on high-resolution Earth observation satellites to monitor the nuclear and ballistic missile activities of the closed society of North Korea. Similarly, environmental monitoring satellites allow users to monitor the impact of climate change in generally inhospitable regions such as the Arctic and Antarctic.

From access flows the strategic attribute of presence, where satellites are not only the first assets on ‘the scene’, especially in natural disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis. Similarly, satellites in various orbits are always present over, or at least provide regular coverage of, the Earth’s surface. For example, the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programmes have been forced literally underground because of the persistent presence of reconnaissance satellites. While these satellites have not stopped these countries from pursuing their nuclear ambitions, they have forced them underground and imposed significant time and financial penalties on Tehran and Pyongyang.

Lastly, the attributes of perspective, access, and presence all combine to create the fourth, and perhaps most significant, strategic attribute of spacepower: strategic depth. This combination creates a vertical flank perpendicular to the Earth’s surface that provides horizontal operational and strategic depth for the spacepower user. This strategic depth provides the spacepower user to trade physical space for time because it is able to detect events, movements, and threats long before they impact the user’s own interests, assets, or forces. For example, Israel has mastered spacepower in order to attain the strategic depth it lacks on the Earth’s surface. Israeli spacepower operates well beyond Israeli borders and so contributes to Israeli deterrence of conventional military threats.

In addition to these strategic attributes are spacepower’s technical attributes of versatility, ubiquity, and continuity. Spacepower is versatile because satellites can be used simultaneously for a variety of purposes. For example, satellite navigation systems can be used to provide precision targeting for militaries, navigation for automobile drivers, and timing for financial networks and cellular telephone networks around the world all simultaneously.

Spacepower is ubiquitous, or in the case of Earth observation near ubiquity, because communications, satellite navigation, and environmental monitoring satellite systems provide coverage of the entire Earth’s surface.

Finally, spacepower provides continuity because satellites are always operating, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year over operational lifetimes per satellite that can exceed 15 years.

As a growing number of Middle East countries acquire satellites they are able to take advantage of these strategic and technical attributes of spacepower, provided they can integrate it into their diplomatic, economic, and military power. The secret of spacepower is that this integration is the most challenging aspect of deriving true strategic advantage from satellites.

Another challenge, however, is the rise of transparency created by disseminating satellite technology, as well as mobile cellular and computer devices, social media, and big data and artificial intelligence.

The rise of transparency

Scholars and policy makers have acknowledged that the conduct of foreign and defence policy is becoming more challenging because in the past few decades it has had to be conducted in the public glare because of the presence of media able to broadcast events as they happen, and the growing number of ordinary members of public in possession of phones with cameras. This has meant that it has become more difficult to operate clandestinely, and even if clandestine operations can be conducted the risk that they can be revealed in a short period of time has increased exponentially.

Today, this transparency trend has sped up exponentially thanks to both the growth of the trends described above and also the emergence of new trends such as easily accessible satellite imagery, the viral potential of social media such as Twitter and Facebook, the ubiquity of mobile devices (the number of which now outnumber the world’s entire population), and the potential revealed by big data and artificial intelligence that can gather and sift through all of this data in very short periods of time.

With the exception of North Korea, no country has been exempt from these technological trends. When American special forces raided the compound used by Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011, the world was alerted to it because a nearby resident Tweeted about the commotion underway. Similarly, the world – including heads of state and their intelligence services – have been made aware of the horrors perpetuated by Bashar al-Assad’s forces and Daesh in Syria because of noncombatants communicating events in real time through mobile devices and social media. In the case of Daesh, their sophisticated use of these new technologies have been used to deliberately communicate atrocities to a horrified and outraged global public.

In particular, the continuing dissemination of high-resolution Earth observation satellites, as well as the revolutionary changes in satellite imagery brought about by commercial companies like Planet Labs and Terra Bella, are an integral part of this trend toward transparency. In the Middle East alone high-resolution Earth observation satellites are on the verge of rapid dissemination. Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates either already own such capabilities, or will have them in operation in the next couple of years.

Furthermore, many Middle East countries purchase high-resolution satellite imagery from American, French, and Russian countries for everything from military operations through to urban planning. Now, with companies like Urthecast and BlackSky operating launching hundreds of small satellites each high-resolution satellite imagery can be purchased for as little as US$100 an image (compared to the thousands of dollars per image charged by companies like America’s DigitalGlobe). This means that satellite imagery is now available not only to Middle East governments and large companies like Aramco, but also to small businesses and even terrorist groups such as Daesh.

The biggest implication, however, is that this radical technological change combines with a strategic geography of mostly open terrain to create the perfect conditions for transparency. Add to this the wider technological and cultural impact of mobile devices and social media in the Middle East, and it becomes increasingly difficult for governments and other powerful actors to operate without being subjected to public and international scrutiny.

The Paradox

All of this leads to the paradox of spacepower in the Middle East. On one hand regional governments are acquiring a powerful technology that can take advantage of open terrain and enhance the national security of its users by potentially expanding their strategic depth and deterring conventional conflict. On the other hand, this same powerful technology, combined with mobile cellular and computer devices, social media, and big data and artificial intelligence, will probably restrain the strategic options of these same governments because nearly everything they do – especially in the realm of national security – will be subject to public and international attention.

There will be those, of course, who will not be constrained by the pitfalls of transparency, such as the current Syrian government and Daesh. Others will be more circumspect, however, in how they use military force for fear that their aims and purposes might be frustrated before they even have a chance of success. More likely, the rise of transparency will make the character of war in the region change even further by placing a premium on the use of special forces and cyber warfare. Even then, however, Middle East governments should not expect the use of these clandestine tools to stay secret for long.


For decades the strategic geography of the Middle East has been the backdrop for radical changes in the character of war. These changes have become the victim of their own success as Israeli and US conventional military superiority have forced their opponents to seek more clandestine and asymmetric military responses that have now become commonplace throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Technology has caught up with all strategic actors in the region. Whether it’s a country like Saudi Arabia that possesses the most up-to-date and advanced military equipment or the likes of Daesh or Hezbollah that rely on more unconventional military approaches, the combination of disseminating high-resolution Earth observation satellites and other technologies are creating a more granular type of global transparency, and creates a paradox for decision makers in the region.

Transparency brought about by high-resolution Earth observation satellites, and other technologies, will be the cause of further change in the character of warfare and diplomacy in the Middle East for many years to come. It will not change the nature of war or the fundamentals of international competition, but their conduct will change irrevocably.


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