Potential Use of Starlink by Russia? A Background and the Implications

Starlink Satellite. Image – Starlink.

Recent reports suggest that both sides in the Russian Ukrainian war are using Starlink terminals. Although unverified, if true would bring a new a new element to the conflict that has been raging for over two years.

What is Starlink?

Starlink was developed by SpaceX to provide high-speed Internet access to places where connecting to the Web is nonexistent, expensive, or unreliable. Rather than a traditional geosynchronous (GEO) constellation, SpaceX decided to go with a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) system. Although other providers also use LEO, Starlink is a major player in the market. Among the advantages to a system of this type is low latency, which allows for an enhanced user experience with little delay or interruption. A downside is that many satellites are needed to complete the system.

Why is it important?

Starlink has been instrumental for Ukraine since the early days of the war. Communications and speculatively limited PNT (Positioning Navigation and Timing) capabilities are leveraged by Ukraine through Starlink. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 put the latter in a tough position in terms of staying connected to the outside world. Elon Musk vowed to open Starlink service to Ukraine, and reportedly the service has become indispensable to both the Ukrainian military and civilians. Lately though, slower service has been reported which could signal the use of Starlink by both sides.

Analysis

If both sides are using Starlink, there are a number of factors that could affect the fighting on the front. Improved communication and battlefield awareness could lead to a faster-paced and potentially more destructive conflict. Forecast International’s Lead Analyst Defense Markets and Strategic Analysis Derek Bisaccio stated, “Widespread usage of the system by both sides could slow the connection further, limiting its benefit to Ukrainian operators. Moreover, there is also a risk that efforts to stop Russian troops from using Starlink could inhibit Ukrainian access or affect a Ukrainian unit in the field, particularly in areas where the frontlines are fluid – a Ukrainian operator could be misidentified as a Russian one and thus see their terminal cut off.”

The situation is unclear but footage has shown some usage of Starlink by Russian forces. Both sides using the same communication network will likely blur the lines both figuratively and literally. Overall, the implications of Starlink depend on how it’s used by both Russia and Ukraine.

 

Lead Analyst, Space Systems at Forecast International | + posts

Carter Palmer has long held a keen interest in military matters and aviation. As an analyst for Industrial & Marine Turbine Forecast, Carter specializes in examining key gas turbine programs for electrical power generation, mechanical drive, and marine propulsion applications. He is also responsible for updating the reports and analyses within the Space Systems Forecast – Launch Vehicles & Manned Platforms and Space Systems Forecast – Satellites & Spacecraft products.

About Carter Palmer

Carter Palmer has long held a keen interest in military matters and aviation. As an analyst for Industrial & Marine Turbine Forecast, Carter specializes in examining key gas turbine programs for electrical power generation, mechanical drive, and marine propulsion applications. He is also responsible for updating the reports and analyses within the Space Systems Forecast – Launch Vehicles & Manned Platforms and Space Systems Forecast – Satellites & Spacecraft products.

View all posts by Carter Palmer →