The American businessman reacted lightning fast, and within a few days the Ukrainians received the first delivery of terminals for connection to SpaceX’s Starlink satellite network. At a time when the political leaders of Western countries were still discussing how not to irritate Putin too much with some support for Ukraine, SpaceX was already fighting its own battle with Russia.
Thanks to Starlink, it was possible to expel the Russian army from a large part of the occupied territories. However, the Russians used scorched earth tactics during their retreat. The infrastructure is there https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1581092314176331776, and it will take a very long time to restore it, especially when the war is still going on. That is why SpaceX provides communication services in the liberated territory. After all, it also does this directly on the front, for example only thanks to Starlink it was possible to maintain a connection with the soldiers surrounded in Mariupol.
Far from being just about ensuring communication, the Ukrainians have shown great ingenuity and made Starlink part of their weapons systems. Specifically, we can mention the system known as GIS Art. It is a situational awareness software that creates an interactive map including images from drones, satellites and information from people in the field. The location and type of targets are recorded into it, and based on this data, the program selects the most suitable weapon within range that could neutralize the target.
Another deadly use of Starlink is satellite-controlled attack drones. We will stop with them for a moment, because they are the bone of contention between SpaceX and Ukrainian officials. At the same time, these drones are very important for the Ukrainians, because thanks to them they are able to carry out strikes in the rear of the enemy.
Remote controlled kamikaze boat
Air and sea drones can work without Starlink, but if they are to be truly controlled, and not just work in some autonomous mode, they cannot do without high-speed, secure and stable communication. Drones could therefore only operate within the range of a direct radio connection.
Ukrainian unmanned drone washed up on the beach in Sevastopol
The US military also operates its satellite communication (using it to control the Predator and Reaper drones). However, it would be unrealistic to expect her to share it with Ukrainian forces. In addition, due to the location of the satellites in geostationary orbit (36,000 km above the Earth), a powerful terminal antenna is required and the connection has a high latency. The transmission speed will probably not be famous either, the president and CEO of SpaceX Gwynne Shotwell once said that Starlink is a hundred times faster.
US Space Command’s General John Raymond visited SpaceX’s Starlink factory in January as part of a broader campaign from the Pentagon to hardwire fledging mega-constellations for military comms. Shotwell said Starlink’s bandwidth is “100 times” better than AF’s current tech
October 23, 2019 at 1:32 a.m. Post Archived: November 1, 2023 at 2:51 p.m.
For commercial satellites in geostationary orbit (eg Viasat’s KA-SAT network) the latency is 700 ms and the maximum transmission speed is 3 megabits per second for upload – this is the limit value for HD video transmission from a single camera. If the drone needs to send data from several optoelectronic devices, including radar and other sensors, or control an entire group of drones, the demands on transmission speed increase sharply.
Fortunately for Ukraine, in addition to Starlink, other constellations of communication satellites are being born in low Earth orbit (LEO, 160-2000 km above the Earth). However, these satellite networks are not very numerous yet, for example the Iridium NEXT constellation has only 80 satellites and offers a transmission speed of several hundred kilobits per second. The size of the satellite constellation is important to ensure continuous coverage of the area over which the communication satellites fly, and also because one satellite can only serve a limited number of terminals in a defined area.
After Starlink, the second largest OneWeb satellite constellation consists of 648 satellites orbiting the Earth at an altitude of 1,200 km (3x higher than the Starlink satellite), which should correspond to the latency. OneWeb is still secretive about real-world performance, but in July 2019, the company announced that it experienced 32ms latency and 400 megabits per second download speeds when testing its first six satellites. This looks promising, but the question remains as to how OneWeb is doing with availability and reliability, but supposedly from the end of this year this constellation should also cover Ukraine with a signal.
In the final, the OneWeb constellation will consist of 648 satellites at an altitude of 1,200 km.
To sum it up: Starlink is not completely irreplaceable, but none of the other satellite communication providers can offer Ukraine such opportunities as Starlink. When using satellite networks in geostationary orbit, the problem is latency, low transmission speed and the need for larger terminals. Medium Earth Orbit (MEO, 2,000-35,000 km above Earth) satellite networks, such as O3b operated by SES (which, by the way, is Ukraine’s largest satellite TV provider), fare only slightly better.
Orbits of various satellites. Satellites for DVB-S television broadcasting – a) – can be found in geostationary orbit, Starlink – b) – then much closer to Earth.
For small networks in low Earth orbit, signal coverage is again an issue. Alternative satellite communication providers are nevertheless important for Ukraine, as they can supplement Starlink in territories over which SpaceX turns off the Starlink signal. The biggest problem is not the complex construction of drones, it is communication, especially communication over long distances and in real time. The Ukrainians can produce a whole fleet of drones, but how to transfer such amount of data from the middle of the sea?
Based on what has been said so far, it can be concluded that Starlink represents a fat cut in Russian conquest plans. But the Russians are not completely powerless against him. One of Russia’s powerful weapons is maskirovka, or propaganda. Russian propaganda puts SpaceX in the unflattering position of a sponsor of war, claiming that Russia is seeking peace, but that the West is preventing it by supplying weapons and technology.
It is said that whoever supplies weapons adds fuel to the fire of war. In fact, weakening Ukraine would not deter the Russians from continuing the invasion, it would only restore the Russian military to the lost superiority it had at the beginning of the war. But the truth is not important – as Julius Caesar once remarked, libenter homines id quod volunt credunt (people willingly believe what they want).
So whoever Russian propaganda fits into his views and ideas, he is happy to accept it and continue to spread it. These are not only the so-called desolate and pacifists, but also people who fear the escalation of the war conflict. Moreover, helping Ukraine costs something. Russian propaganda works successfully with all this. SpaceX thus finds itself under pressure and has to defend itself.
“(Starlink) was never intended as a weapon, but the Ukrainians used it in ways that are extraordinary and were not part of any agreement (…) We know that the (Ukrainian) military uses it for communication, and that’s fine, but it was not our intention, to use it to attack,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell assured at a February conference on commercial space transportation. It is quite understandable that SpaceX does not want to be associated with killing, it would not benefit the company’s reputation, moreover, because of this, Starlink is starting to be perceived as a legitimate military target.
The second strong discipline of the Russians is cyber attacks. Just a few hours before the invasion on February 24, 2022, hackers from the Russian military intelligence GRU used the AcidRain malware to disable terminals that communicated with the KA-SAT satellite network of the American company Viasat.
The outage affected tens of thousands of users in Europe, but above all the Ukrainian army, which disrupted the connection with frontline units. Subsequently, Starlink appeared on the scene, which is still resisting the attacks. Probably the biggest credit for this is the flexibility of the Starlink team. Elon Musk said that in response to increasing hacker attacks, they repeatedly rewrote the software of their devices to stay one step ahead of Russian hackers. The system’s encryption technology has also proven itself.
No doubt Russia will too https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1580594379751686149. Interference with satellite communication can occur in two ways: by interference (broadcasting on the same frequency) of the signal transmitted by ground stations to the satellite (uplink jamming), or, conversely, by interference with the signal transmitted from the satellite to the ground (downlink jamming). The second method has a limited range, as the jammer signal weakens with greater distance and can be shielded relatively easily. So it is more effective to focus the jamming directly on the satellite, but the problem with jamming Starlink in this way is that there are too many satellites of this constellation.
Among the Russian systems for electronic warfare, the Krasucha 4 and Tirada 2 complexes can be used against Starlink. It is known from leaked secret reports (Discord Leaks) that the Russians also deployed Tobol, which, according to the documentation, is supposed to be used to defend against electronic attacks against their satellites.
Protection against satellite communication interference consists in narrowly routed transmission or a technique called “spread spectrum” (a signal generated in a certain bandwidth is intentionally expanded in the frequency domain so that it occupies a wider band) or adaptive filtering. But such measures can still be overcome by a jamming signal strong enough to cover the entire bandwidth of the satellite and overwhelm its electronics. So far, the attempts to jam Starlink seem to have had little impact, but it is a persistent threat as the Russians gradually improve in the field of electronic warfare.
October 15, 2022 at 8:56 p.m., post archived: November 1, 2023 at 3:41 p.m.
The destruction of satellites is also considered. For this, the Russians can use the PL-19 Nudol missile system, which protects Moscow from ballistic missiles, but has already been tested as an anti-satellite weapon. The proliferation of Starlink will not help in this case, because the debris from the rockets and impacted satellites would also destroy other satellites and low-orbit stations in a chain reaction after some time.
However, this would lead to aggravation of relations not only with the USA, but also with other countries that would lose their satellites, and especially with China, whose ambitious space program would be disrupted for a number of years (before most of the debris would spontaneously deorbit). A better means of damaging satellites would be laser weapons. On the one hand, they would be cheaper (they only require energy) and on the other hand, they would leave the affected satellites intact. However, Russia does not have laser weapons, but China is developing them.
For the Russians, attacks against Starlink are definitely worth the effort, as Starlink is one of the things that provide the defending Ukrainians with a qualitative advantage in the war. If they lost the ability to use satellite communication, it would be such a small disaster for them. Even just the restriction of Starlink services by Musk’s will causes them great complications. While it’s hard to blame Musk for not wanting Starlink to be used as a weapon, there is one lesson to be learned from his actions: No country can afford to be dependent in key areas on private companies that will do as their owners please.
The text was taken from the portal ElonX. It was edited before publication. Original can be found here.