Putin could try to shoot down Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites

October 28, 2022, 12:00 PM UTC
Russia threatened to shoot down space-based commercial infrastructure such as Elon Musk’s Starlink, if it interferes with its invasion of Ukraine.
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Outer space has become the latest theater of war in Russia’s campaign to subjugate Ukraine, with Elon Musk’s space-based internet provider, Starlink, now deemed a legitimate military target in the eyes of Moscow.

Starlink continues to be a vital element in Ukraine’s efforts to repel the invasion forces of Vladimir Putin, since its network of satellites hovering in low earth orbit (LEO) has thus far proved to be impervious to electromagnetic attack—impressing even the Pentagon’s top brass.  

Now the Russian government has warned Musk indirectly that it will shoot down his birds, which in Moscow’s view represent an “extremely dangerous trend” toward a “full-fledged arms race in outer space.”

Konstantin Vorontsov, deputy head of the Russian delegation to the United Nations, urged his colleagues to condemn what he argued was the United States’ co-opting commercial services for its own military purposes.

“Quasi-civilian infrastructure may become a legitimate target for retaliation,” he said during a meeting on Wednesday, calling for America to return to existing international legal agreements and norms governing outer space such as the UN treaty signed in 1967.

Russia has only been able to count on a handful of pariah states such as Belarus and North Korea for support at the UN. A large number of developing economies and nonaligned governments—including China, India, and South Africa—have however abstained from UN General Assembly votes condemning its illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory.

Washington fired back on Thursday, pledging to take proportionate action for any attacks on U.S. property. 

“I would just say that any attack on U.S. infrastructure will be met with a response and will be met with a response appropriate to the threat that’s posed to our infrastructure,” said John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, on Thursday.

Threat of bankruptcy

While Russia didn’t specifically single out Musk or Starlink by name, they are the most obvious targets. Musk has said his satellites have already been targeted by cyberwarfare attacks. There has also been speculation this month “Peresvet” laser beams fired from Belgorod in Russia have attempted to blind Starlink.

Should Russia follow through on its threats and actually shoot down some of his birds, it could cost Musk heavily. Each Falcon 9 launch, for which Musk’s SpaceX charges a commercial price of $67 million, can only deploy about 50 Starlink satellites. SpaceX has launched more than 3,000 Starlink satellites so far.

While SpaceX itself doesn’t disclose financial results, Musk said on Oct. 14 that Starlink—currently its core revenue-generating business—is still losing money: “It is insanely difficult for a LEO communications constellation to avoid bankruptcy.”

The following day he dropped a threat to cut financial support for Starlink service in Ukraine, after claiming it had cost his company $80 million so far. 

Russia’s warnings may explain why the Tesla and SpaceX CEO, in a rather ham-handed manner, has recently sought to force Ukraine to the negotiating table.

“I’ve been up all night trying to think of any possible way to de-escalate this war,” he posted earlier this month.

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