MILAN – The widespread use of Starlink, the constellation of internet satellites operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, by Ukrainian troops in defending against Russia’s invasion is accelerating development of drone warfare, according to experts interviewed by C4ISRNET.
Since receiving Starlink access terminals last year, the Ukrainian military has not shied away from making use of them. Officers from the Aerorozvidka aerial reconnaissance unit stated in past interviews that their drone pilots rely on Starlink to carry out missions, connecting the UAV team with the artillery one to generate target acquisition on Russian equipment and positions.
More recently, Ukraine officials disclosed that the country’s military was looking to establish strike forces that would be provided with Starlink equipment to create fleets of interoperable drones.
Musk made somewhat contradictory remarks during his appearance on a Russian state TV show last month, saying that his company banned Starlink from being used in long-range drone strikes by Ukrainian forces. Whether these restrictions are enforced or not, one thing is clear: since being unveiled in 2015, the prospects of Starlink have long expanded beyond the original intention of providing undersupplied regions with high-speed access to the internet.
“I do not think that SpaceX ever ruled out potential military use, but it was not a case they emphasized,” said David T. Burbach, professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, in an interview. “Today, [there is] no question that Starlink’s prominence in the Ukraine war has militaries all over the world considering and looking to make greater use of it as well as similar mobile data constellations.”
Burbach said his views are his own do not necessarily reflect that of the U.S. Navy.
Starlink offers considerable advantages over other satellite communications networks, likely contributing to its attractiveness for equipping everything from infantry squads to armored vehicles to being integrated directly in drones as that becomes more feasible, he said.
Currently, Starlink antennas are too large and too heavy for small drones. However, there has been momentum from the defense industry to experiment. In November, Canadian company RDARS, announced that it had successfully integrated Starlink equipment to its Eagle Nest ground station, which was able to transmit data to the firm’s Eagle Eye military drone in-flight.
Via Starlink, the ground station communicates with a control center, allowing the operator to control and receive imagery from the drone. While RDARS solely integrated the dish to the drone’s ground station, the company has emphasized the potential of installing it on the drone itself.
Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command in the Middle East, has stated that Starlink was used to connect unmanned aircraft, vessels and underwater vehicles operated by allied forces in a NATO exercise in Portugal. In December 2021, Australia-based Unleash Live teamed up with Starlink to facilitate remote drone flights. Through access to Starlink’s low-orbiting satellites, the company was said to have successfully managed the system’s flight from 200 kilometers (124 miles) away.
Advantages and Risks
Among the primary factors that set apart Starlink constellations from older satellite systems is its ability to operate in low-Earth orbit, at less than 2,000 kilometers above the earth, in contrast to competitors who orbit at altitudes up to 36,000 kilometers. Burbach explained that this allows the signal from Starlink satellites to be much stronger, offering higher transmission speed and requiring less power to operate.
This strong connection also makes them more resistant to jamming.
“The ground antennas of Starlink form a highly directional beam at the satellite it is using– the signal is then difficult to interfere except along the line between terminal and satellite,” he said.
Another benefit it has over geostationary systems is that its very large number of satellites are interchangeable, where if one is put out of service another one is able to take over. With respect to drones, Burbach states that if high bandwidth commercial satellite links can be installed inside of one or more while functioning in flight, then this would make it possible for the operating country to control it far outside of its borders.
For any country or military to rely on Starlink does entail a number of security risks as well. Perhaps the most important one being that it is possible to geolocate the terminals, possibly giving away the physical positions of forces.
Davide Scaramuzza, associate professor of robotics and perception at the University of Zurich, said that as a base station or flying drone emits radio signals, it can be intercepted by enemy forces using high power antennas across a wide array of commonly used bands.
Achieving this might be harder in practice than is let on for several reasons. On the one hand, as Todd E. Humphreys, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Texas points out that beams a Starlink terminal produces “are narrow (less than 5 degrees and they hop around in frequency, which make it hard to get an actual lock on a terminal.”
This can in part be seen in Russia’s large inability to locate satellites one year into the war, at least on a significant scale.
On the other hand, Humphreys says that SpaceX applies geofences on user terminals to prevent their operation outside approved areas. The company also holds the power of revoking one’s access to the network if it finds this one being used in violation of the user agreement or permitted instances. One implication of this, is the possibility for a country depending on Starlink to lose access to these services in the middle of a war if the commercial operator decided so. For a military force, this would imply that it could no longer rely on or use these connections for weapons attacking the affected areas.
Burbach of the Naval War College said a more subtle risk is that the system operator, SpaceX, has an extensive access to information about clients, and by extension Ukraine.
‘If I were the Russians, I would be very interested in trying to get into Starlink by compromising an employee or even getting an agent on staff,” he said. “We know several foreign intelligence services have done so with other social media firms.”
SpaceX has undergone an important expansion recently, opening a representative office in Azerbaijan in late 2022, and announcing it had applied to establish a Starlink branch in South Korea. In addition, a new satellite constellation should be up later this year to provide coverage in the Middle East. While its services are currently active in 45 countries, mostly NATO members or allies of the U.S.
Experts say that it is not a far remote possibility that the company could begin supplying customers in countries unfriendly to the West, who could also be interested in using Starlink for military applications.
While, as the University of Zurich’s Scaramuzza argues, it is false to assume that Starlink can be associated with a country, there are still important concerns to be raised regarding the development of its integration on unmanned platforms and overall uses. In January, footage from a pro-Russian paramilitary group on a telegram channel claimed that they had captured and disassembled a Ukrainian drone, finding a Starlink dish modified to fit onto the system. While these reports remain unconfirmed, such events could likely happen on a more frequent basis, as the demand for the internet services continues to rise and further integration with drone systems persists.
“Generally, it is very hard to operate a drone that you obtained from another country, especially when the security protocols such as encryption are designed well. Just like if your laptop got stolen and you had not saved all your passwords for online-banking on the device itself, your account would still be secure,” he said.
Despite this, it remains very easy to dismantle an enemy aircraft to learn more about the technologies used inside it and extract information. This has been seen extensively in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where each side has attempted to destroy enemy capabilities and improve its own.
The proliferation of Starlink, less regulated than Starshield, for military purposes remains in its very early days.
Samuel Bendett, research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses’ Russian Studies Program concludes, “whatever happens in Ukraine is going to serve as a blueprint for future Starlink applications in drone warfare.”
A legitimate military target?
Last September, a Russian delegation to a UN working group on space security, insinuated that under international humanitarian law, Starlink could be designated as a legitimate military target. In a similar fashion, it has been reported that China is working on developing counter-systems to Starlink and that in the event of a conflict with the US, the satellites would be treated as an active target.
Heiko Borchert and Torben Schutz at the Defense Artificial Intelligence Observatory in Hamburg said that this is one of many complexities and sets of questions that will have to be answered as Starlink is further militarized.
“If it is to be considered a proper military target, the question then becomes how would Western governments respond in the event of an attack on a single satellite or constellation,” they said in a post.
Such matters are also challenging considering that SpaceX has not only received significant subsidies from the U.S. government, but that the U.S. Agency for International Development reportedly also paid the company to send over 1,000 Starlink terminals to Ukraine.
Borchert says that this is an important space to watch, concerning whether Washington would be willing to provide the same level of support to make Starlink available in the event of other conflicts to friendly governments.
Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.