Leadership: SpaceX Goes To War

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April 27, 2022: American defense officials now admit that if the Starlink satellite internet service were government run, it would not have remained operational over Ukraine because government regulations do not allow for the quick responses Starlink management used to defeat Russian electronic attacks. .

SpaceX, the American firm that designed, built and put the Starlink satellites into orbit, accomplished this by encouraging innovation and acting quickly to deal with service interruptions, including deliberate efforts by hackers or hostile governments. This was demonstrated after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th. The Ukrainian minister of digital transformation contacted Starlink management for help in dealing with Russian efforts to cut Ukrainian access to the Internet. Starlink officials had already been negotiating with Ukraine to provide Starlink service locally. SpaceX agreed to help and within four days hundreds of Starlink satellites activated to provide Ukraine with high-speed Internet service using hundreds of Starlink user kits (a small dish and a special router) sent to Ukraine. Within a month there were thousands of Starlink user kits in Ukraine and the number keeps growing with many Ukrainian organizations buying additional user kits.

Currently about 20 percent of the initially planned Starlink global network satellites are in orbit. These were active over a few areas so reviewers and other volunteer users can test the system. By February 2022 Starlink appeared to be a success but the network also displayed a remarkable resistance to attacks from hostile governments, and the Russians were the first ones coming after it with major jamming efforts and threats to destroy Starlink satellites over Ukraine. SpaceX pointed out that it could put additional Starlink satellites into orbit faster than Russia or anyone else could destroy them. This capability was part of the Starlink design that not only allowed satellite and user software to be quickly updated but new Starlink satellites often had new features added to improve performance and that included more resistance to hacking and jamming.

Starlink satellites are designed to last for up to seven years and the Starlink system is designed to expand to over 30,000 satellites if demand by paying customers is large enough to justify and pay for it. That is being tested by the heavy use of the Starlink satellites over Ukraine by Ukrainians who don’t have to pay the usual one time $500 startup and $99 monthly fees. This serves as a test of how much heavy use each satellite can handle, especially when constantly subject to heavy Russian hacking and jamming efforts.

Russia did seek to sever the fiber optic cables that connect Ukraine to the global Internet, and generally try to disrupt Internet service inside Ukraine. Starlink made this effort futile and Starlink became the first satellite communications service that could be described as combat tested. This is always a major selling point for military equipment or anything built to that is built to survive in a harsh environment. Starlink expected many emergency relief organizations would maintain Starlink accounts that could be taken into disaster areas where most communications were disabled. Starlink terminals can be kinked to local networks and supply Internet service for locals and emergency workers.

Starlink resistance to hackers and jamming was quickly put to the test as Russia came after it several times in the last two months, failing in each attempt because Starlink engineers could diagnose an attack, develop a software patch and implement it quickly, often in less than an hour. Starlink also responded by modifying the design of newly manufactured Starlink satellites to resist efforts to disrupt service.

The Ukrainians were equally innovative in finding new ways to use Starlink Internet service in combat. One example was using Starlink to support attacks on Russian supply lines day and night. The night attacks were effective because of the use of small Ukrainian designed UAVs equipped with GPS, a night vision camera, a laser range finder and a link to a nearby artillery unit via Starlink. The UAV patrolled Russian supply routes at night and, when a convoy was spotted trying to move safely in the dark, the artillery unit had the continually updated location of the trucks. That enabled the Ukrainians to fire at the convoy and destroy many of the vehicles while demoralizing the survivors who didn’t believe the Ukrainians could detect them in the dark and call-in accurate artillery fire.

Similar innovations were developed to provide Ukrainian military units with better communications than the Russian invaders. That edge has been maintained and it is expected that the Russians will continue trying to disrupt Starlink service.

The American military bureaucracy is not hopelessly trapped by mandatory rules and regulations. In wartime the system becomes a lot more responsive as the military is allowed to act quickly and effectively to deal with problems. This was the case during the recent war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq/Syria. That effort is winding down and the rules and regulations are regaining their dominance. Commercial firms like SpaceX achieve success by using wartime rules and often eventually fade as more rules replace their freedom to quickly respond.

 


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