Death Valley

Galwan Valley (Hawkeye 360) – Hawkeye 360 was able to match RF signals it collected with imagery intelligence to determine the location of military units close to the LAC.

A contretemps embroiling two of Asia’s biggest actors sheds light on commercial space-based RF collection and analysis.

A six-hour skirmish on 15th June involving the Indian Army and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ended with the deaths of 20 Indian soldiers and an undisclosed number of PLA troops. The brawl occurred in the Galwan River Valley stretching between the western Chinese region of Aksai Chin and the northern Indian region of Ladakh.

The skirmish happened on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). This is the loosely demarcated border between the two countries resulting from the 1962 Sino-Indian War. No firearms were used by either side because of previous agreements to help deescalate tensions on the border. Instead six hours of hand-to-hand combat took place in near total darkness.

Commercial RF collection

In what may have been a first, private-sector space RF (Radio Frequency) data collection and analysis shed some light on the incident.

Until recently, the ability to collect RF signals from space, and analyse them on Earth was the preserve of governments rich and ambitious enough to own and operate signals intelligence satellites. Electronic miniaturisation and lowering launch costs is helping companies build and launch RF collection satellites.

Hawkeye 360

Hawkeye 360 is one such firm. The company’s Hawk-A, B and C constellation can collect and locate the source of a myriad of RF signals. These include Very High Frequency (VHF: 30 megahertz/MHz to 300MHz) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF: 300MHz to three gigahertz/GHz)) signals. This is alongside L-band (1.3GHz to 1.7GHz) and X-band (8.5GHz to 10.68GHz) Satellite Communications (SATCOM) transmissions. Other signals can be collected by the constellation although these will bave been the most relevant regarding the skirmish.

A Hawkeye 360 spokesperson told Armada Analysis said that the company started to monitor RF activity along the LAC in mid-May as tensions between India and the PRC rose. Both sides were accusing each other of violating their borders: “We started to monitor more intently in May when we realised the Indo-China border situation was continuing to escalate.”

Hawkeye 360 focused its search on areas reported to have witnessed activity by Indian Army and PLA units. It was then a matter of narrowing down the parts of those areas seeing higher than normal RF activity. While the company demurred from saying which signals it tracked it may have been possible for the Hawk constellation to detect and locate L-band or X-band SATCOM emissions, or spikes in standard V/UHF traffic to determine a human presence in a particular area: “We leveraged commercial RF signals to develop a general awareness of activity in this remote region.”

Galwan River Valley

Once a presence had been determined using RF emissions, these RF clusters would be matched with satellite imagery of that area. This would betray the presence of military units there: “We don’t collect satellite imagery,” the spokesperson continued: “Instead, we partner with commercial Earth observation providers such as Planet to task imagery.” This approach pays dividends: “In this way, we discovered the Chinese military build-up in the Galwan River Valley, about 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the LAC. People were not directing attention that far up the valley.”

Hawkeye 360’s work shows the contribution that commercial space-based RF collection and analysis can make to monitoring the world’s trouble spots. Commercial satellite imagery has been available for decades helping the public and private sector make sense of conflicts. Will the latest skirmish between India and the PRC kick off a similar trend for space-based commercial RF collection and analysis?

by Dr. Thomas Withington