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How Elon Musk's Satellite System Changed The War In Ukraine

Wars on the ground are increasingly being won and lost up in space. Without a constellation of satellites, notably the Starlink fleet delivered promptly by Musk, Ukraine would not have been able to hold off Russia in the first weeks of the invasion. But there's more work to be done for the West to stay ahead.


A SpaceX rocket with Starlink hardware onboard, prepared for launch

Anne Bauer


PARIS — One of the main lessons armies are taking from the war in Ukraine is the importance of space — to the ability to observe, listen, geo-locate or transfer data to help the battles on the ground. Satellites have been at the service of armies for a long time. But in Ukraine, they have become essential.

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“President Zelensky would have never been able to establish such contacts with the military and citizens without the Internet connections provided by satellites,” says Micheal Schoellhorn, the CEO of Airbus Defense and Space.

Speaking before the U.S. Congress, U.S. Space Force General David Thompson emphasized the essential role now played by commercial satellites in armed conflicts and the resilience of new low-orbit constellations of small satellites. And Valéry Rousset, who researched the use of satellites in the Gulf War, confirms the new world of changed warfare: “During the Gulf War in the 1990s, the international coalition used at most 80 satellites. Today, the number of satellites has increased at least tenfold!"

Direct help from the Pentagon

Thanks to satellites, Washington can tell Ukrainian soldiers where to position themselves and where to fire. This is how moderately trained soldiers can hit the bull’s eye with their anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, especially when the missiles used are equipped with the "fire and forget" function, which allows them to hit a target autonomously.

Observers have asked why the Russian army didn't further jam the Ukrainian communications networks during their offensive on Kyiv. Especially since, on the eve of the invasion, Russia had successfully “hacked” one of ViaSat’s telecommunications satellites, making the West fear for the worst.

Yet, two days after the offensive, Ukraine called on the constellation of low-orbiting Starlink satellites deployed by Elon Musk to maintain its communications. Nearly 11,000 Starlink satellite connection kits were sent and deployed on the ground, allowing some 150,000 Ukrainians to connect every day.

The constellations revolution

With over 2,300 satellites in orbit, Starlink appears to be indestructible for the time being — the loss of a few satellites is not enough to put it out of order. “It is difficult to jam a constellation of over 2,000 satellites. This constellation is a major break and a revolution altogether, because it makes voice, data and high-speed video available to everyone,” Valéry Rousset notes.

Suddenly, low-orbiting constellations have become an essential asset for the Armed Forces. In observation, constellations such as Planet or BlackSky provide image frequency, while military satellites provide very high-resolution images for ever larger theaters of operation.

In data transmission and Internet (broadband), Starlink and other constellations play an unprecedented military role.

Rocket in sky

​SpaceX Falcon 9 rocketc carrying 53 Starlink internet satellites 

© Gene Blevins/ZUMA

The future of war

China made no mistake when it announced it would conduct research to destroy a constellation like Elon Musk’s, which it now classifies as military. Ukrainian units use Starlink for “blue force tracking,” which allows them to stay connected to their allies on the battlefield.

In the future, there is no doubt that it will be possible to jam or destroy the constellation’s small satellites, with laser weapons for instance, but for the time being, their large number makes it “hard to flatten a network,” says General Thompson.

The French Army stresses that connectivity and social networks have a huge impact not only in terms of operations but also with information and propaganda. Ukrainians are very creative when it comes to diverting civilian apps for military purposes.

“Citizens have turned the app Diia, which stores official documents such as driving licenses or passports, into an intelligence tool through which they send information to their government about the state of the country's infrastructure and the arrival of Russian forces,” a French general notes. Another example is the facial recognition app Clearview, which is used to help war crimes investigators or to warn Russian mothers about the death of their sons.

Europe trails behind

Will Elon Musk be Ukraine’s savior? Let’s not exaggerate, says the French Ministry of the Armed Forces. We need connectivity, but above all, we need the ability to process and prioritize information, which puts the emphasis on what the military calls “C4ISR” (Computerized Command, Control, Communications in Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance).

But the widespread use of satellites on the battlefield is allowing for increasingly connected combat on wider and deeper ground. "In the future, we will need satellites and men equipped with ammunition, but also with smartphones," an Army colonel says.

At this stage, the war in Ukraine is more than enough to justify the project defended by the European Commissioner Thierry Breton to provide the EU with its own sovereign constellation. No European country can afford such a space infrastructure by itself. The entry ticket was evaluated by the European Commission of at least six billion euros for a constellation of some 300 satellites dispatched on different orbits.

“Europe is already very late, everyday counts, we must hurry,” Schoellhorn says. “Starlink and its first generation of satellites are some sort of prototype. Now we need to develop our own infrastructure, the most efficient we can, with inter-satellite links to ensure our sovereignty.”

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