Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet service has already proved its value in war.
Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Ukrainian vice prime minister Mykhailo Fedorov asked Musk to dispatch more Starlink satellites to the country, to safeguard its communication networks.
Now, according to Fedorov, “all critical infrastructure [in Ukraine] uses Starlink.”
But if Starlink, which is developed by SpaceX, can provide a tactical advantage to one side in a conflict, the same satellite system poses a threat to the opposing side. In China, at least, military researchers have started to plan how to combat that threat.
“A combination of soft and hard kill methods should be adopted to make some Starlink satellites lose their functionality and destroy the constellation’s operating system,” reads a paper published last month in China’s peer-reviewed journal Modern Defence Technology.
Disabling an enemy’s communication networks is a common warfare tactic. In the internet era, that goal could be achieved by knocking out infrastructure, such as relay stations and undersea cables, that make telecommunications possible.
But Starlink is more difficult to disable. Although the internet service does utilize some ground-based infrastructure, the core of Starlink’s connectivity is provided by a “constellation” of tiny satellites—over 2,300 of them so far—whizzing through Earth’s low orbit.
“The Starlink constellation constitutes a decentralized system. The confrontation is not about individual satellites, but the whole system. This requires some low-cost, high-efficiency measures,” the research paper said.
China already has methods for disabling satellites: microwave jammers that either disable a satellite’s communication functions or fry onboard equipment; targeted lasers that can interfere with a satellite’s sensors; and ballistic missiles, which simply destroy the module with an explosion.
But those methods might be unsuitable for tackling the scale of Starlink’s constellation. Starlink plans to expand its network to a constellation of over 40,000 satellites—far too many to target individually.
The weak point in Starlink’s infrastructure is the relay stations on Earth, which receive and transmit signals from the satellite constellation, but disabling those could cause an unwanted escalation in a war. The relay station that provides Starlink coverage to Ukraine, for example, is most likely in Poland—outside the current war zone.
The best way for China to combat Starlink’s capabilities might be to build a rival network. And it is. In 2020, China announced a plan to develop a so-called StarNet constellation of at least 10,000 satellites in low-Earth orbit.
Expect the night skies to grow a lot more crowded in the years ahead.