Chinese Military Threatens Destruction of Elon Musk’s Starlink Satellites
Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites appear to be a point of concern for the Chinese military. The Chinese army has expressed its worries over the military threats posed by the constellation and is, reportedly, planning to destroy them. The military recommends a combination of soft and hard methods of destruction to eliminate some Starlink satellites and destroy the system’s operating system. Such an article was recently published in the Journal of Modern Defense Technologies of China, led by renewal engine, a researcher at the Beijing Institute of Tracking and Telecommunications, funded by the Chinese state.
The researchers noted that Starlink had strong ties to the US military, with funding from the US Air Force to test the connection of Starlink satellites to military aircraft under encryption. In May 2020, the US Army signed an agreement with SpaceX to use Starlink broadband access to send data over military networks, and in October of the same year, SpaceX won a $150 million contract to develop military satellites. In March 2021, SpaceX announced its plan to work with the US Air Force to further test the Starlink internet.
The document states that as the conflict in Ukraine has shown, Starlink satellites are capable of providing vital communication infrastructure in wartime. Starlink gives the side that has it an advantage from space, unlike traditional telecommunications infrastructure such as relay stations and submarine cables, which are easier to disable.
In April 2021, Russia tried to disable Starlink with an electromagnetic attack and failed miserably. While China already has methods for disabling traditional satellites using microwave jammers, targeted lasers, and ballistic missiles, the researchers noted that the Starlink constellation doesn’t concern individual satellites, but the entire system, requiring some inexpensive and highly effective measures.
At present, Starlink plans to construct a 42,000-strong constellation of satellites, of which over 2,300 active satellites are currently in orbit. That’s too much to target individually. Musk is a well-known figure in China for his electric car company Tesla and as a role model for innovation. But criticism of Musk and his companies, including Starlink, increased significantly after two Starlink satellites came dangerously close to the Chinese space station last year.
With more than 2,300 satellites in orbit and counting, Starlink is generally considered indestructible as the system can maintain proper functioning after the loss of some satellites. The unprecedented scale, complexity, and flexibility of Starlink will require the Chinese military to develop new anti-satellite capabilities, according to Ren and his colleagues.
The confrontation is not about individual satellites but the entire Starlink system. Without going into detail about the attack methods, according to publicly available information, China is developing numerous alternative anti-satellite technologies. These include microwaves that can jam communications or burn electronic components; lasers to blind or damage satellites; nanosatellites that could release in large quantities to damage larger satellites, and cyber weapons to hack satellite communications networks.
A Beijing-based space scientist, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue, said that the document could be the first open call for an attack on Starlink from China. The Chinese government is also developing its own internet satellite networks, known as Xing Wang IstarNet, to provide global internet access. According to the Chinese space authorities, the Starnet system will have only a few hundred satellites but will achieve high performance by connecting with other Chinese satellites to form a high-speed, powerful, and stable information infrastructure with advanced technologies such as laser communication and artificial intelligence.
The whole topic of space militarization is becoming increasingly complex and controversial, with concerns for the risks of collisions in space and the urgent need for world governments to share information about approximately thirty thousand satellites and other space debris that are orbiting the Earth. The story with Starlink satellites has been developing rapidly since the end of last year, and the whole issue is becoming a bone of contention in the strained relationship between China and the United States. It remains to be seen how things will unfold, but there is an urgent need for responsible and balanced approaches to this increasingly critical issue.