A new use has been found for the Starlink satellite communications network; a GPS substitute. Using signals from six Starlink satellites provides location data that is within eight meters of the user. Not as accurate as GPS but accurate enough for many tasks. Ukraine gained access to the Starlink network soon after the Russians invaded in 2022 and quickly developed a number of useful applications. For example, later in 2022 Ukrainian app developers created an app (ePPO) to enable civilians to quickly report incoming Russian cruise missiles, especially the new Iranian Shahed 136 Russia obtained which is low (down to 100 meters) slow (180 kilometers an hour) and noisy. These are often sent in small swarms (4 to 12 missiles) and at night. With ePPO all a user has to do is point the phone in the direction of the missile and press a large button. The information quickly arrives at the local air defense headquarters where numerous reports are instantly combined on a computer display so the officer on duty can instantly send the data to nearby air defense units. With that kind of information, more and more of the Shahed 136s and even some larger, faster cruise missiles are detected and shot down. Civilians with a “take cover” app get an alert to do that if they are in the target area. Suppliers of this data are verified by another app, Diia, which contains user identification documents
Earlier the phones with Diia had a similar app to instantly report any enemy activity. For Ukrainians in Russian occupied territory, this often provided important target locations so Ukrainian guided missiles could destroy weapons storage sites as well as headquarters or troops concentrations. Technically, the use of this app in enemy territory makes the user a partisan and subject to attack. This did not discourage many Ukrainians, who noted that the Russians were already attacking Ukrainian civilians without any provocation.
As soon as the invasion began in February, civilians were using chat apps to quickly report where the enemy had been spotted. Ukraine’s cell phone services kept operating during the invasion because of access to the Starlink satellite system. The Russians had no such access and not many military radios. The Russians were moving and fighting blind compared Ukrainian troops and civilians with cell phones.
This persistent cell phone service enabled families to keep track of their men, and women, in the military. Apps for that had already been used in many other countries as well as numerous navigation, first aid and fire-control apps that had been developed over the last decade. Many of these apps were also used by police, firemen and first-responders.
The military has had problems with some of these apps revealing troop locations to an enemy equipped to detect such use. This led to many apps being banned from use in combat zones until the flaws could be fixed. Although Russia also had some military apps, they had fewer of them and less opportunity to get cell phone service in Ukraine. The Russians were also unable to develop new apps to deal with new developments in the war. Ukraine always had a more robust and prolific app development community and that turned out to be a military superiority the Russians did not expect, much less deal with.
An even more fatal flaw was the lack of encrypted communications for Russian forces in Ukraine. While Russia has some encrypted communications devices, those were few in number and not very reliable. Most Russian communications were unencrypted and monitored by the Ukrainians. Russia also has nothing like Starlink and seek ways to cripple the Starlink network. So far Russia has had no success with that either.