How has Elon Musk's Starlink Satellite Network played an important role in strengthening the Ukrainian military's might?
Considerable attention has been focused on the Ukrainian military’s performance in the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Undoubtedly, Ukrainian forces have fought gallantly and very effectively against superior Russian military power. However, their capacity to beat back Russian forces could not have crystallised without significant US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) financial and military support. Ukraine’s effective exploitation of western-supplied intelligence explains in significant measure the battlefield success of the Ukrainian forces. However, very few have addressed the role played by private actors in the success of Ukraine’s performance, such as Elon Musk’s Starlink Satellite Network contribution to the Ukrainian military’ battlefield success.
Germany’s energy producer Enercon even went so far as to admit that 5800 of its wind turbines which are operated remotely through a SATCOM connection located in central Europe suffered a loss of contact with its Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) server.
Even before the Ukrainian government made an official request to SpaceX’s for Starlink’s internet service, the private space giant had been preparing to provide internet services to Ukraine. However, lest we forget and overlook the Russians were successful in jamming Ukrainian as well as European Satellite Communications (SATCOMs) terminals in the initial stages of the ongoing war. When it launched its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Russia managed to disable tens of thousands of KA-SAT SATCOM terminals. They ceased operating across several European states such as Germany, Ukraine, Greece, Poland, and Hungary. Germany’s energy producer Enercon even went so far as to admit that 5800 of its wind turbines which are operated remotely through a SATCOM connection located in central Europe suffered a loss of contact with its Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) server. All the countries that fell victim to the attacks even lost broadband internet service.
Eutelsat, which operates the KA-SAT network through a subsidiary on Viasat’s behalf under a transition agreement, assumed but could not initially confirm it was a cyberattack. Commander General Michel Friedling confirmed that the disruption was the result of a cyberattack. This was not simply a Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attack, it resulted in thousands of terminals spread across a large area suffering damage, albeit many of which were eventually restored. As Friedling noted, the terminals could not be "repaired" due to the cyber attack, at least immediately. How did Russia pull off such a crippling cyberattack against European SATCOMs in the early stages of the war? The internet is not the only known vector of attack, there are other vectors as well. For instance, any ground-based segment of a SATCOM network can be attacked. Indeed, the cyberattack against Eutelsat’s SATCOM was directed first at Ukraine-based terminals which then spread to terminals across Europe. Although the attack did not affect maritime, space, and aviation segments. It is possible a zero-day window was exploited by the Russians, but a very plausible theory at least advanced by one expert is that most likely given the extent of the damage either a Network Operations Centre (NOC) or ground stations of spot beams from satellites over Ukraine were the actual target causing significant collateral damage across Europe. The Ukrainians now losing access to SATCOMs meant that their artillery strikes were rendered ineffective compelling them to seek assistance from elsewhere.
Even more remarkable is Starlink’s contribution to the Ukrainian war effort is not only in circumventing Russian jamming and destruction of its satellites, but the space-based internet services of Starlink dispensed completely with ground infrastructure to transmit high bandwidth data.
This is when Elon Musk’s SpaceX stepped in to assist the Ukrainians following a formal approach made by the latter to SpaceX to avail its Starlink services for Ukraine’s GIS artillery which helped restore SATCOM services that existed before the war.
What is remarkable is that even the US government satellite data and standard military artillery command and control are unable to qualitatively match a combination of the Ukrainian military’s GIS Art for Artillery app software and Starlink. Even more remarkable is Starlink’s contribution to the Ukrainian war effort is not only in circumventing Russian jamming and destruction of its satellites, but the space-based internet services of Starlink dispensed completely with ground infrastructure to transmit high bandwidth data. Starlink enabled internet email service from one to another allowing Ukrainian forces to communicate and operate behind Russian lines. Consequently, Russia’s direction-finding equipment has not been able to intercept, track and locate Ukrainian targets because of the near absence of any electronic signature.
The foregoing has broader implications. If a private space company such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink can provide tangibly better SATCOM services than the US government, which the latter was and possibly remains unable to detect heralding a shift in the power towards private enterprise away from governmental control - what is the use of US government derived satellite services? Will governments need to approach private SATCOM operators such as SpaceX in the event governmental SATCOMs are disabled? Could a privately owned super-sized constellation of satellites potentially make the difference between defeat and victory? Or could wars become more protracted? These questions are hard to definitively answer at this stage. Although, the Chinese have become very concerned with Starlink’s impact on their national security and SpaceX-owned satellite mega constellation. Starlink is seen as a threat that could aid the US military in the event of a Sino-US war. More generally, the US government may move to regulate private space companies such as SpaceX or at least compel them to assist the government.
The Chinese have become very concerned with Starlink’s impact on their national security and SpaceX-owned satellite mega constellation.
Finally, another issue of fundamental importance is the development and launch of Small Satellite (SmSat) constellations in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) by India. The capabilities demonstrated by the Starlink’s satellite constellation without any ground infrastructure in the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine also serve a reminder by providing visible confirmation of the significant role SmSat constellations can play in wartime strengthening the Command, Control, Computers, Communications, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities of the Indian armed forces, which this author extensively explained in a separate analysis.
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Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Kartik specialises in space military issues and his research is primarily centred on the ...Read More +