How Will Starlink Help Ukrainian Forces?

Elon Musk’s Starlink has been sent to replenish diminishing access to broadband internet in Ukraine.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has sent Starlink terminals to the Ukrainian government in the midst of a Russian invasion—but how exactly does this help? FLYING spoke with Rose Croshier, a policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, about what effect Starlink will have on the Russia-provoked conflict.

Starlink, a project led by Elon Musk, is the owner of an ever-growing number of small satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO). The massive undertaking is made with the intent of providing high-speed internet access around the world.

SpaceX has sent nearly 2,000 Starlink satellites into orbit, with more sent up every few weeks.

There’s one thing that sets Starlink terminals apart from your average satellite dish—its small size.

“What’s unique about these terminals is that rather than being a 3-meter-wide dish that requires a lot of power to both receive and transmit internet broadband, these are much smaller, lower-power receivers that are kind of plug-and-play,” Croshier said, “in a sense that they’re designed to be plugged into a household outlet, essentially.”

Given the ongoing attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure by Russian forces, internet access has dropped significantly among the people of Ukraine, which hurts telecommunications for the public and military operations.

So, Ukraine tweeted Elon Musk, asking for help. And less than 24 hours later, Starlink terminals were on the ground in Ukraine. Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime minister, thanked Elon Musk for the prompt response.

“Communication is crucial during any conflict,” Croshier said. “So, if it’s a tool that helps them coordinate their sources, coordinate their movements, understand what’s happening on the ground, that of course will have some sort of tactical impact, but it’s very hard to say.”

In a post, Croshier mentioned concerns regarding the direct involvement of the private sector in an international conflict.

It’s unclear to what degree the U.S. government was involved with SpaceX’s seemingly independent actions, but the Ukrainian government was, of course, thankful for the expedient help.

“For example, satellite terminals both receive and send data, which means they emit a signal. Signals can likely be detected and potentially targeted by enemy forces,” Croshier said. “Is SpaceX warning its new users to not place terminals on top of shelters, schools, and hospitals? How vulnerable is the signal to spying; is it encrypted?”

John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the University of Toronto, tweeted about how there may be risks to using Starlink terminals in certain areas.

“Good to see. But remember: if #Putin controls the air above #Ukraine, users’ uplink transmissions become beacons… for airstrikes.” 

Given that the terminals are expected to be used only by the Ukrainian military, safety protocols will likely be in place during their use.

Fortunately, SpaceX is not the only company that can help Ukraine bolster its internet access.

“Starlink is not the only NGSO [non-geostationary] satellite company out there,” Croshier said. “OneWeb, for example, a partially U.K.-owned satellite system that’s probably been around in development for a couple of decades and they also represent this kind of capability.”

Croshier left FLYING with a word of advice for private companies that wish to help Ukrainian efforts.

“While [companies] may feel compelled to support Ukraine, they need to be careful about what they’re doing and to seek guidance and coordination so they do no harm,” she said. “They may have all the good intentions in the world, but they just need to take advantage of government infrastructures that can bring subject matter experts to the table, to understand implications of what service they’re providing.”


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