Elon Musk and the war in Ukraine: the other face of Starlink

The hatchet is buried, but the honeymoon is over. The very good relations between kyiv and Elon Musk have deteriorated in recent days, after the billionaire entrepreneur had the unwelcome idea of ​​tweeting a “peace plan” proposing elections in the regions invaded by Russia. Unsurprisingly, the Ukrainian authorities sharply criticized the initiative. The matter could have ended there. Except Elon Musk then placed a sword of Damocles over kyiv by suggesting that if Washington didn’t contribute more to Starlink in Ukraine, it might stop providing the country with much-needed space internet for free. today. After putting the Ukrainian authorities on the grill for several days, the entrepreneur finally agreed on October 15 to continue this aid.

This strange sequence has certainly left a bitter taste in Ukraine. However, it clearly showed the real stakes of the bubbling space Internet market. States and companies that advance their pawns in the field like to highlight the interest of this technology to cover white areas or offer connectivity in transit (on planes, boats, etc.). But what is emerging more clearly every day is actually the central role that this technology will have in future conflicts. “Elon Musk has just shown that he held an essential military asset with Starlink”, analyzes Julien Nocetti, associate researcher at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri).

Telecom networks are, it is true, a subject of concern for all States now. By damaging them, an attacker can seriously disrupt a country’s economy and undermine its ability to withstand an attack. Results ? “These are generally the first infrastructures targeted in the event of a conflict”, underlines Jonathan Guiffard, expert in international relations and strategic questions at the Institut Montaigne. On the day of the invasion of Ukraine, the Ka-Sat satellite of the operator Viasat used by the country was thus the victim of a violent Russian cyberattack. And since the Nord Stream sabotage, Europeans have had their eyes glued to the undersea Internet cables, which they need to access the essentials of their daily tools (corporate cloud, messaging, etc.).

A Starlink system antenna installed in Izium, Kharkiv region, eastern Ukraine, September 25, 2022.

A Starlink system antenna installed in Izium, Kharkiv region, eastern Ukraine, September 25, 2022.

Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP

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A huge safety net

In this uncertain context, satellite constellations in low orbit could constitute an effective safety net, for several reasons. First, once a constellation is in orbit, it is relatively easy to bring connectivity to the area of ​​your choice. All that is needed is to transport small antennas, easy to deploy, which can even then be moved from one place to another, according to the needs of the population, emergency services (to reconnect a hospital by example) and of course, the military.

In Ukraine, the latter use the SpaceX satellite constellation, among other things, to operate reconnaissance drones. “Thanks to Starlink, they transmit targeting information to gunners who can then trigger precise destructive shots,” explains Philippe Steininger, associate researcher at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (Iris) and military adviser to the president of the National Center. space studies (Cnes).

Another major advantage of these new constellations: they are less exposed to enemy attacks, such as jamming attempts. “The signal they transmit to the ground is up to 1,000 times stronger than that coming from a geostationary satellite (located nearly 100 times farther from Earth).” And unlike the latter, the signal beam sent by a satellite in low orbit is constantly moving, so it is much more difficult for an attacker to disrupt it. And it’s even harder to cut. “Even if the attacker neutralizes 10 or 100 satellites, there will remain many others, in some cases thousands. A geostationary can be neutralized with a single attack”, points out the researcher associated with Iris.

Detect the dreaded hyper-sonic missiles

These constellations of satellites can also offer a wide variety of services, ranging from Internet connection to geolocation, via satellite images or listening capabilities. They even pave the way for rapid detection of hypersonic missiles. These formidable weapons that go five times faster than sound are indeed very difficult to detect from the ground. And at an altitude of 36,000 kilometres, the large geostationary satellites cannot collect and transmit information quickly enough to alert effectively.

Placed much closer to us, just a few hundred kilometers away, the constellations in low orbit can, on the other hand, send us this critical data 10 to 50 times faster and are therefore well suited to protect a country from ultra-weapons -veloces who would move towards him. “The constellations of satellites in low orbit will disrupt the art of war”, summarizes Philippe Steininger. They will make it possible to exchange information much more quickly, in greater quantity and in a more fluid manner. “With them, space, after investing the strategic level of military operations, will extend to the tactical level.” A pilot of a fighter plane can, for example, be connected to other planes, to soldiers on the ground and to staffs and communicate easily with all these beautiful people.

A sizeable advantage on a battlefield. Especially since all countries are far from having the same degree of advancement in the field. Europe has a constellation project, vigorously promoted by Thierry Breton, European Commissioner for the Internal Market. These major EU projects, which require the collaboration of all the Member States, however, take time. China is also advancing its pawns to deploy a constellation of 13,000 satellites called Guowang. “It is carried by the public authorities and will certainly have military applications”, underlines the associate researcher of Iris.

Those who stand out clearly from the pack, however, remain the United States. Washington is working to set up an impressive military space infrastructure which will include, among other things, a set of satellites responsible for interconnecting military actors (so that they can easily exchange information) and another “tracking” layer to track down hypersonic missiles and ground targets. To go faster, Washington is also testing collaborations with the private sector. And with his champion Starlink, he has a big advantage. Not only is Elon Musk’s service the most advanced in the field (it already has more than 2,000 satellites deployed) but its business model is stronger than that of its competitors, because Elon Musk controls the entire chain. of value: “It produces Starlink satellites, launches them with its rockets, operates them and markets the service they deliver”, illustrates Philippe Steininger. So many assets that give the United States an excellent set of cards to protect itself, but also to influence the outcome of future conflicts.


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