October 21, 2022:
Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and Starlink, recently agreed to continue paying for Ukrainian use of his Starlink satellite communications system after openly trying to persuade the United States to pick up the cost. Musk has kept Starlink operational over Ukraine since the war began in February. This includes paying for rapid patches to defeat Russian EW (electronic Warfare) attacks and providing many Ukrainian users with the highest (and most expensive) level of service. This has cost Musk $80 million so far and will soon reach $100 million. The media promptly accused Musk of threatening to cut off Ukraine from its free Starlink service. That was never the case but maintaining the level of Starlink Ukraine demands to maintain its communications advantage over Russia keeps growing. Both Russia and China are seeking ways to disrupt or shut down Starlink over Ukraine. Yet for some reason the U.S. government refuses to make Starlink service part of its multi-billion-dollar military aid effort for Ukraine. After weeks of this Musk ended the discussion by openly agreeing to keep paying for the Ukrainian Starlink service. While Musk is the world’s richest man, there are limits to his resources and the enormous costs of maintaining Starlink for Ukraine in wartime is unprecedented and not sustainable at its current level. Musk is returning to private discussions with the American government over the issue.
When Russia invaded Ukraine before dawn on February 24th, the Ukrainian minister of digital transformation contacted Musk for help in dealing with Russian efforts to cut Ukrainian access to the Internet. Starlink officials had already been negotiating with Ukraine to provide Starlink service locally. Musk agreed to help and within four days hundreds of Starlink satellites were moved into position to provide Ukraine with high-speed Internet service using hundreds of Starlink user kits Musk sent to Ukraine. Musk ultimately supplied Ukraine with nearly 2,000 terminals and managed to persuade countries supplying military aid for Ukraine to include Ukrainian requests for more Starlink terminals, especially the more expensive, and capable commercial models. In this way Ukraine was able to obtain over 25,000 terminals so far. Most of these are used to keep the economy going and the ones used by the military are subject to combat losses. Civilian users face a similar but lesser risk and about 500 terminals are month are lost to Russian attacks. These have to be replaced and most, if not all, of the replacements are paid for by military aid for Ukraine. The Starlink replacement terminals cost about a million dollars a month.
In April American defense officials admitted that if the Starlink satellite internet service were government run, it would not have remained operational over Ukraine because government regulations do not allow for the quick responses Starlink management used to defeat Russian electronic attacks and keep Starlink operational in Ukraine.
SpaceX, the American firm that designed, built and put the Starlink satellites into orbit, accomplished this by encouraging innovation and acting quickly to deal with service interruptions, including deliberate efforts by hackers or hostile governments. By April 2022 about 20 percent of the initially planned Starlink global network satellites were in orbit. More satellites had to be put into orbit to provide the enormous demand Ukrainian military and civilian users were creating. Before 2022 Starlink was turned on over a few areas so reviewers and other volunteer users could test the system.
By February 2022 Starlink appeared to be a success but the network also displayed a remarkable resistance to attacks from hostile governments, and the Russians were the first ones coming after it with major jamming efforts and threats to destroy Starlink satellites over Ukraine. SpaceX pointed out that it could put additional Starlink satellites into orbit faster and far less expensively 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. That is being tested by the heavy use of the Starlink satellites over Ukraine by Ukrainians who don’t have to pay the usual one time $500 startup or and $99 monthly fees. This serves as a test of how much heavy use each satellite can handle, especially when constantly subject to heavy Russian hacking and jamming efforts. This got a lot more expensive as Starlink introduced its more capable, and expensive, commercial and military grade terminals.
Russia did seek to sever the fiber optic cables that connect Ukraine to the global Internet, and generally try to disrupt Internet service inside Ukraine. Starlink made this effort futile and Starlink became the first satellite communications service that could be described as combat tested. This is always a major selling point for military equipment or anything built to that is built to survive in a harsh environment. Starlink expected many emergency relief organizations would maintain Starlink accounts that could be taken into disaster areas where most communications were disabled. Starlink terminals can be linked to local networks and supply Internet service for locals and emergency workers.
Starlink resistance to hackers and jamming was quickly put to the test as Russia came after it several times in the first two months of the war, failing in each attempt because Starlink engineers could diagnose an attack, develop a software patch and implement it quickly, often in less than an hour. Starlink also responded by modifying the design of newly manufactured Starlink satellites to resist efforts to disrupt service.
The Ukrainians were equally innovative in finding new ways to use Starlink Internet service in combat. One example was using Starlink to support attacks on Russian supply lines day and night. The night attacks were effective because of the use of small Ukrainian designed UAVs equipped with GPS, a night vision camera, a laser range finder and a link to a nearby artillery unit via Starlink. The UAV patrolled Russian supply routes at night and, when a convoy was spotted trying to move safely in the dark, the artillery unit had the continually updated location of the trucks. That enabled the Ukrainians to fire at the convoy and destroy many of the vehicles while demoralizing the survivors who didn’t believe the Ukrainians could detect them in the dark and call-in accurate artillery fire.
Similar innovations were developed to provide Ukrainian military units with better communications than the Russian invaders. That edge has been maintained and expanded even though Russians, now the Chinese, continue trying to disrupt Starlink service or find ways to locate active terminals quickly and target them for air or artillery attack.
The American military bureaucracy is not hopelessly trapped by mandatory rules and regulations. In wartime the system becomes a lot more responsive as the military is allowed to act quickly and effectively to deal with problems. This was the case during the recent war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq/Syria. That effort is winding down and the rules and regulations are regaining their dominance. Commercial firms like SpaceX achieve success by using wartime rules and often eventually fade as more rules replace their freedom to quickly respond.