Amidst the multidimensional aspects of the Russia-Ukraine war, one is cyber warfare, where Starlink has taken a key role. The war has proven to be a crucial business case for the internet service provider.
The situation was becoming desperate for Ukrainian soldiers surrounded by Russian forces in the Azovstal factory in early May 2022. They called for help, not from their own military command, but from the US billionaire Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and Tesla. On May 12, a Twitter message flashed from, Sergei Volyna, commander of the 36th Marine Brigade in Mariupol “@elonmusk people say you come from another planet to teach people to believe in the impossible. Our planets are next to each other, as I live where it is nearly impossible to survive. Help us get out of Azovstal to a mediating country. If not you, then who? Give me a hint.”
Since the beginning of the all-out Russian attack on Ukraine, Starlink has unfailingly proven its worth as a critical communications medium. The service has been proven robust, both in its design and operations. The service requires no terrestrial infrastructure aside from a user terminal, allowing users to set up internet access quickly. It circumvents earth-based infrastructure, which has not only been destroyed by the ongoing warfare but has also crumbled under targeted Russian cyber and physical attacks and sabotage.
This part of its performance was expected. However, when Russian forces started jamming Starlink signals, the service proved to be operationally resilient. US Department of Defense (DoD) officials recently confirmed that Starlink has mitigated Russian jamming attempts extremely quickly by “changing a couple of lines of code” and pushing new codes through the system.
A case study in countering cyber attacks
Dave Tremper, director of electronic warfare for the Office of the United States Secretary of Defense, said he was impressed by how quickly the attacks were repelled. “Starlink had slung a line of code and had fixed it and suddenly that was not effective anymore,” Tremper said during the virtual C4ISRNet defence and military conference Wednesday. “How they did that is kind of eye-watering to me.” Tremper called Starlink an “interesting case study” and said the military could learn from how the team quickly addressed the problem. “We need to be able to have that agility,” he added.
Although it is unclear how exactly the jamming was expected and mitigated, Starlink’s ability to quickly alter the code its system is running and then push those updates to all orbital and ground assets shows a high level of software engineering prowess and excellent system design by allowing such changes on the fly and practically in real-time.
Starlink’s resilience to jamming, and its almost complete independence from terrestrial resources, led to speculation about how vulnerable the system would be to a physical attack on its satellites. Although an attack on an LEO satellite constellation is possible – Russia and China, for example, have anti-satellite weapons – such an attack would be costly, ineffective, and cause significant collateral damage.
With a Starlink satellite’s cost estimated to be around $250,000, shooting one satellite down would likely cost more than replacing it in orbit. Also, since the attack would need to take out hundreds of satellites to be effective, the cost to do so (both in terms of finances and depletion of anti-satellite weapons) could be prohibitive.
With thousands of satellites in orbit, an attacker would need to shoot down a significant number of satellites to degrade the service; they would still likely fail to take the service down, as satellites can be repositioned to re-establish target area coverage and can provide coverage even without overlying a contested area.
Proving a business case
The collateral damage of an attack on an LEO (low-earth-orbiting) constellation would be significant in creating orbital debris. Moving warfare into the orbit could cause retaliation in kind against the attacker. From a broader perspective, Starlink’s stellar performance in Ukraine paves the way for further uses for satellite internet – some of the commercial, but also with a deeper societal repercussion.
From a commercial standpoint, Starlink’s resilience and (as of late) nomadic performance is a proving ground for its use, either as backup connectivity (e.g., in enterprises having geographically dispersed operations across areas with differing levels of terrestrial service) or as a perfect way of handling use cases needing nomadic and consistent connectivity (e.g., cruise ships, sports teams, or private users in mobile homes).
Breaking into the ‘iron curtain’
The government-sponsored use cases may even be more important: outside of the military uses that certainly inspired the US DoD to help fund the Ukrainian Starlink deployment, LEO constellations can be used as a critical communications medium in disaster-stricken areas, or even as a way of providing uncensored access to the internet for people living under oppressive regimes.
This final use case – akin to democratic countries providing radio programming to people living behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ in the second half of the 20th century – is not practical at present, due to the size and cost of today’s terminals needed to access the service. In the future, though, with miniaturization and commercialization of the technology, it could become a significant way of bringing the ‘splinternet’ back together.
Also Read: Elon Musk’s war and future of connectivity
(Abhijit Roy is a technology explainer and business journalist. He has worked with Strait Times of Singapore, Business Today, Economic Times and The Telegraph. Also worked with PwC, IBM, Wipro, Ericsson.)
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