Without the Starlink satellite Internet, Ukraine would have long been cut off from the Internet in large areas. Elon Musk’s technology therefore has tremendous value. Unfortunately, Starlink was never intended as military gear – and it’s starting to pay back.
You have to admit one thing to Spacex boss Elon Musk: At no point did the US billionaire make a secret of the fact that Starlink was not suitable for military purposes. The digital lifeline of the Ukrainians, which now consists of tens of thousands of ground stations, should always help the population to stay connected to the network – and thus above all to organize humanitarian aid and stay in contact.
However, the Ukrainian army quickly discovered that Starlink is also ideally suited for use at the front. From then on, the soldiers also used the space connection to coordinate attacks and steer their drones with it. At least until Spacex, the company behind Starlink, arbitrarily restricted use on the front lines (Starlink paralyzes Internet for drones in Ukraine).
Officially, the reason was that Starlink was “never intended to be used as a weapon”. He was referring to the attacks carried out by Ukrainian soldiers using Starlink. However, a report by “Defense One” shows that there may be another good reason for the front lock: Starlink can now be located and disrupted very easily by the enemy.
Starlink turns out to be a double-edged sword
A soldier with the call sign “Boris” told the military experts that the use of the ground terminals is now a double-edged sword: on the one hand, the connection is very mobile and at the same time fast, on the other hand, the Russians have learned to locate the receiving stations in no time at all as soon as they transmit.
“You have to do your job quickly and get out of here immediately,” quotes “Defense One” from the soldier, “because the Russians will find you.” Apparently, Russia has worked hard to put an end to the technology. As early as autumn last year, a Russian delegation at a United Nations (UNODA) meeting declared that the “quasi-civil infrastructure” was classified as a target for retaliatory measures.
At the time, the statement said: “We would like to draw attention to an extremely dangerous trend that goes beyond the harmless use of space technologies and is illustrated by the events in Ukraine. This means the use of elements of civil, including commercial infrastructure in space by the United States and its allies for military purposes.” Action followed. Only a few months later, the Sestroretsk arms factory presented the “Borshchevik” direction finding system, which was intended to detect terminals along the front.
Aside from the danger of betraying your own position to enemy troops, Starlink also seems to be losing effectiveness due to Russian countermeasures. A drone pilot with the code name “Professor” explained that he had noticed again and again that Russia had been interfering with transmissions with jammers for about two months. “It still works in some positions, but not elsewhere,” reveals the Ukrainian, “the jammers are very effective.”
It’s supposed to help put the terminals in a hole
But there is a trick, says the pilot. Sometimes putting the Starlink terminal in a hole helps. Then suddenly it would be connected again. This is due to the type of jammer, say experts. Because Russia often relies on GPS jammers that make it impossible for Starlink ground stations to determine their position. This in turn ensures that they do not know which satellite to connect to. A barrier between the comparatively weak GPS jammers and the terminal, like a hole, could already solve the problem, they say.
Another way to circumvent the Russian countermeasures is to enter the GPS coordinates manually. But that doesn’t help in areas where Russia uses more sophisticated jammers. There, the development of Starlink and Russian blockades mutate into a cat-and-mouse game. There is at least one known case where Starlink was able to restore the connection with a small software update.
For the moment, they say, Ukraine has to live with this situation. There is simply no comparable technology that could be used as an alternative to Starlink. This is also shown by the numbers of satellites that providers of space Internet have to show. Starlink dominates by far in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
Despite all of this, Ukrainian soldiers must exercise caution when using Starlink. Once spotted, the Russian invaders could simply fire at the potential ground station area—then the effectiveness of jammers would no longer matter. Starlink terminals are already relatively clearly visible on weather maps (weather researchers are annoyed by Starlink) – Russia will know that too.
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