Winning: The Starlink Threats

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June 7, 2022: Russia and China have been very public about their envy, anger and hostility towards the new Starlink space-based communication system. Russia was the first to feel the pain caused by Starlink and declared Starlink founder and leader Elon Musk an enemy who should be executed. China was less emotional and more practical by making public a government study of the Starlink problem and asking for comments and new solutions. This is a common practice in China and used to be in Russia, especially when the Soviet Union existed. The Soviets used this publicity technique primarily to let all officers in the military know of new tactics, concepts or problems the state was having with something. Public discussion was allowed to help eliminate the less useful suggestions and solutions. Post-Soviet Russia began as a democracy with a new constitution that protected free-speech and ended the domination of the state over how people lived and worked. There were a lot fewer state secrets and the FSB, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB secret police/domestic and national intelligence agency, was deprived of much of its Soviet era power and privileges. As some Russians predicted, the KGB regained power after former (for 16 years) KGB officer Vladimir Putin became president of a democratic Russia. After some initial success improving the economy and curbing corruption, he decided that long-term success for Russia depended on reviving many Soviet-era practices. That included Putin becoming president for life and many new laws to revive Soviet-era practices like more government secrecy and less personal freedom for Russians.

Talented Russian managers, entrepreneurs and innovators sensed they were no longer welcome and began to flee the new Russia while they still could. This crippled Russian technology development and effective management of entire industries. This included the space program, which was still a money maker because Russia could put satellites into space more cheaply than anyone else. The decline of the space program was very visible and embarrassing. Nothing Putin did to fix the problem worked. The space program stumbled into decline, losing more customers and any ability to fix itself. There were similar, but less obvious, failures in the military and key industries. The government responded by outlawing any reporting of these problems and enforcing the new laws. Its space program responded to successful foreign competition with ridicule. This was the case with the more efficient SLV (Satellite Launch Vehicles) that could return to earth and land under their own power rather than falling back to earth and burning up as they entered the atmosphere. Russian experts called it a clever trick that had no future.

China decided to legalize entrepreneurship and personal wealth in the 1980s, before the Soviet Union collapsed, and became an economic and technology powerhouse. Three decades later China has the second largest GDP and space program on the planet. As a result, China is more of a threat to Starlink than Russia. The published Chinese report on Starlink admitted that Starlink was a threat to state censorship of the Internet and communications in general. The Chinese listed the available techniques for disabling or destroying space-based threats and admitted that Starlink was designed to resist physical attacks on satellites or command signals from earth-based controllers. The comments and suggestions seemed to agree that hacking Starlink was more likely to succeed. This took into account that Starlink was designed to more quickly recover from any successful hacks, or new vulnerabilities that hackers had not yet discovered. The Russians and Chinese agreed on one thing; Starlink was a very real threat to both of them. The best the Russians could do was threaten assassination. The Chinese are seeking a less dramatic solution that has a chance of succeeding.

Starlink, a subsidiary of SpaceX, is not the only multiple small satellite ISP (Internet Service Provider) system. There are similar efforts underway in several countries, including Russia and China. Starlink is unique in that it was the first to enter service and quickly proved it could do what it was designed to do. That included quickly adapting to the needs of military users.

Ukraine was one of the few nations to recognize this and in 2021 was negotiating with SpaceX to gain early access to the new Starlink satellite-based high-speed Internet service. Once the Russians invaded in February 2022, Musk ordered Starlink (still in global beta-test mode) turned on for Ukraine and within days had delivered 500 user kits (a small satellite dish and a special modem) with thousands more following. Some Ukrainian engineers had already obtained user kits, to check out the tech and in anticipation of Starlink soon being accessible locally. Ukrainians were impressed by the potential for Starlink, because hundreds of users in other parts of the world already had access for testing purposes and reported consistent high-speed Internet access anywhere.

Another advantage of Starlink was the rapidity of upgrades or modifications to deal with problems, including Russian efforts to jam or disrupt Starlink’s performance in Ukraine. Not only were the Russians unable to disable Starlink, but found its encrypted signals a major asset for the Ukrainian military and far superior to communications Russian troops had in Ukraine. Worse for the Russians was the Ukrainian ability to rapidly integrate Starlink with Ukrainian communications and fire control systems.

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. Starlink already has a Starlink 2 satellite design ready to replace aging satellites and expand the Starlink satellite numbers. The new satellite is designed to operate more efficiently over countries that outlaw Starlink as an ISP. Nearly half the Internet users on the planet live in countries that heavily censor Internet use. Starlink makes it much more difficult to censor Internet users. Originally designed to provide affordable high-speed Internet use to those in remote areas, Starlink discovered it had gained a l0t of new customer interest because of the experience in Ukraine.

Initially Starlink was just meant 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 without being able to improve their own military comms much.

China sees Starlink as a serious threat to the current government and its control over the population as well as the effectiveness of their military. That’s no speculation because it’s already happening, often live on TV, in Ukraine.

 


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