- Since its attack began in February, Russia has attempted to interfere with Ukraine’s communications.
- Ukrainian troops and civilians have turned to SpaceX’s Starlink to keep those channels open.
- Chinese researchers say Beijing should develop a way to disable or destroy Starlink satellites.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, the United States and its NATO and European allies have sent Ukraine security, economic and humanitarian assistance worth tens of billions of dollars.
Aid to the beleaguered Ukrainians also came from the public and private sectors. One of the most notable contributions was that of Starlink, a satellite communications 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 the country.
Ukrainian troops besieged in the Azovstal steel 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 operate like a constellation.
Starlink has been “very efficient,” 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 these places.”
In occupied towns without Starlink access, the Russians told civilians that Ukraine no longer existed as a country, but these tactics were not successful on a large scale because of Starlink, the Ukrainian leader said.
Ukrainian access to Starlink has “totally destroyed” the information campaign of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Brig. Gen. Steve Butow, director of the Defense Innovation Unit’s space portfolio, told Politico.
Putin has “never, to this day, been able to silence Zelenskyy”, Butow said.
“We need Starlink”
The Ukrainian government requested Starlink in order to counter Russian cyberattacks against its own satellite communications.
In the hours before the start of the invasion on February 24, Moscow launched “AcidRain” against Viasat, an American satellite communications company that provided communications services to the Ukrainian army. “AcidRain” was a “wiper” designed to target Viasat modems and routers and erase their data before permanently disabling them.
In the early 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 that followed, Russia also ramped up its “jamming and hacking attempts” against Starlink, Musk 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,” one soldier said. special forces. and communications specialist assigned to a U.S. Army National Guard unit told Insider.
“This concept applies equally to the young second lieutenant of infantry all the way up to the commander-in-chief. Good communications are everything!” added the special forces operator, who was not authorized to speak to the media.
The cyberattack on Viasat showed the value of having a distributed satellite communication network, but cyberattacks are not the only way to attack such networks.
Hit or 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 this purpose, and commercial satellite communications have been used on battlefields in the past.
As these systems become more vital to military operations, the military is also looking to disrupt them. In a paper published in May, Chinese military researchers called for the development of “soft and hard killing methods” to disable or destroy the entire constellation of Starlink satellites in the event of a conflict.
The researchers did not describe specific ways to counter Starlink, but said “the entire system” should be targeted, which “requires low-cost, high-efficiency measures.”
In the United States, military and intelligence agencies play a role in both protecting American satellite networks and targeting those of adversaries. The division of labor largely depends on the objective: tapping into the network or attacking to shut it down.
For example, the US Cyber Command, which is responsible for military operations in cyberspace, is likely to focus on how Chinese generals talk to each other rather than what they discuss on calls.
Cyber Command operators “really want to understand the networks themselves. They don’t really care what information is transmitted over this network. They just want to know what 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, America’s primary signals intelligence collectors, would be less concerned with specific nodes and more focused on what’s being transmitted. Intelligence officers would like to know what the Chinese generals are saying in order to better inform American decision-makers.
High-level signals intelligence is usually the most closely held, and there are “very few people who have access to it because it’s highly technical and complex information that requires a lot of analysis,” the agency said. former intelligence officer, speaking anonymously to avoid compromising ongoing work with the US government.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a veteran of the Hellenic Army (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ) and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.