- Since its attack began in February, Russia has tried to interfere with Ukraine’s communications.
- Ukrainian troops and civilians have turned to SpaceX’s Starlink to keep those channels open.
- Chinese researchers have said Beijing should develop a way to disable or destroy Starlink satellites.
Since the start of the Russian invasion, the US and its NATO and European allies have sent Ukraine security, economic, and humanitarian aid worth tens of billions of dollars.
Assistance to the embattled Ukrainians has come from the general public and private sector too. One of the most notable contributions has been that of Starlink, a satellite communication system run by Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
SpaceX says it has delivered 15,000 Starlink kits to Ukraine since late February. The devices provide the Ukrainian military with a resilient and reliable means of communication. Ukrainian troops have used them to coordinate counterattacks or call in artillery support, while Ukrainian civilians have used the system to stay in touch with loved ones inside and outside of the country.
Besieged Ukrainian troops in the Azovstal steelworks plant in Mariupol were only able to communicate with Kyiv and the world because they had a Starlink device.
There are other commercial satellite companies that provide similar services, but SpaceX has developed one of the most robust networks. Starlink uses a new generation of low-orbit satellites that are resilient and powerful because they work as a constellation.
Starlink has been “very effective,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told Wired. “It helped us a lot, in many moments related to the blockade of our cities, towns, and related to the occupied territory. Sometimes we completely lost communication with those places.”
In occupied cities without access to Starlink, Russians have told civilians that Ukraine no longer existed as a country, but those tactics haven’t been successful on a large scale because of Starlink, the Ukrainian leader said.
Ukrainians’ access to Starlink has “totally destroyed” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s information campaign, Brig. Gen. Steve Butow, director of the space portfolio at the Defense Innovation Unit, told Politico.
Putin has “never, to this day, has been able to silence Zelenskyy,” Butow said.
‘We need Starlink’
Ukraine’s government requested Starlink in order to counter Russian cyberattacks against its own satellite communications.
In the hours before the invasion began on February 24, Moscow launched “AcidRain” against Viasat, a US satellite communications company that was providing communication services to the Ukrainian military. “AcidRain” was a “wiper” designed to target Viasat modems and routers and erase their data before permanently disabling them.
In the first hours of the conflict, when the fog of war is thickest, the inability of Ukrainian commanders to communicate with each other and with their troops could have been catastrophic. In the months since then, Russia has also increased its “jamming & hacking attempts” against Starlink, Musk has said.
“What do they say to young officers in training? Your most important weapon is your radio. You’re there to coordinate and lead the fight, not necessarily to kick down doors and be the first man in the room,” a Special Forces soldier and communications specialist assigned to a US Army National Guard unit told Insider.
“That concept applies the same to the young infantry second lieutenant all the way up to the commander-in-chief. Good comms is everything!” the Special Forces operator, who was not authorized to speak to the media, added.
The cyberattack on Viasat showed the value of having a distributed satellite communications network, but cyberattacks aren’t the only way to go after to such networks.
To tap or to attack?
In modern warfare against highly capable adversaries, having a distributed and resilient satellite network is key to success. The US military has its own satellites for that purpose, and commercial satellite communications provides have been used on battlefields in the past.
As those systems become more vital to military operations, militaries are also looking at how to disrupt them. In a paper published in May, Chinese military researchers called for the development of “soft and hard kill methods” to disable or destroy the whole constellation of Starlink satellites in the event of a conflict.
The researchers didn’t describe specific means to counter Starlink, but said “the whole system” would need to be targeted, which “requires some low-cost, high-efficiency measures.”
In the US, the military and intelligence agencies play a role both in protecting US satellite networks and in targeting those of adversaries. The division of labor depends largely on the goal: tapping into the network or attacking in order to shut it down.
For example, US Cyber Command, which is responsible for the military’s cyberspace operations, is likely to focus on the means by which Chinese generals speak to each other rather than on what they discuss during their calls.
Cyber Command operators “really want to understand the networks themselves. They don’t really care about what information is being conveyed on that network. They just want to know that network is being used and its nature (military, financial, diplomatic, etc.),” a former US intelligence officer with a background in signals intelligence told Insider.
The National Security Agency, the US’s premier signals-intelligence collectors, would be less concerned about the specific nodes and more focused on what is being transmitted. Intelligence officers would want to know what Chinese generals are saying in order to better inform US policymakers.
High-level signals intelligence is generally the most closely held, and there are “very few people who have access to that because it’s highly technical, complex information that requires a lot of analysis,” the former intelligence officer said, speaking anonymously to avoid compromising ongoing work with the US government.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.