Categories: SatellitesSpaceX

Starlink is the Only Communications Link for Some Ukrainian Towns, but the Terminals Could Also be a Target

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to an outpouring of support and material aid from the international community. For his part, Elon Musk obliged Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov‘s request for assistance by sending free Starlink terminals to Ukraine. For some besieged communities, like the city of Mariupol, this service constitutes the only means of getting up-to-date information, communicating with family members, or sharing their stories from the front lines of the war.

Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister and its Minister of Digital Transformation, thanked Musk on Twitter for the devices. However, there is also the possibility that as the fighting continues, Starlink transmissions could become beacons for Russian airstrikes. John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher with The Citizen Lab (University of Toronto), pointed out this potential danger via Twitter and even recommended strategies for how this can be avoided.

Mykhailo Fedorov, Zelensky’s second and Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation, appealed to Starlink for assistance on February 26th, two days after Russian forces invaded his country. Fedorov’s appeal was made on Twitter, an essential platform for Ukraine to communicate with the outside world and coordinate efforts with the international community (and is Musk’s preferred mode of communicating with the general public).

This appeal was part of a social media blitz made by Federov to world leaders, entrepreneurs (including Mark Zuckerberg), and major companies. In a series of personalized messages, Fedorov encouraged all recipients to sever business ties with Russia in response to the invasion. In the tweet, Federov drew comparisons between Musk’s vision of “going interplanetary” and Putin’s campaign, writing:

@elonmusk, while you try to colonize Mars — Russia try to occupy Ukraine! While your rockets successfully land from space — Russian rockets attack Ukrainian civil people! We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations and to address sane Russians to stand.”

That same day, Musk responded by saying that Starlink services were “now active in Ukraine” and that more terminals were en route. This prompted a message of thanks from Fedorov, which consisted of a photograph of a military vehicle loaded with Starlink terminals. The tweet was captioned with the words: “Starlink — here. Thanks, @elonmusk.”

In another tweet, Fedorov reiterated his thanks for the donation, stating that “Starlink keeps our cities connected and emergency services saving lives!” He went on to reach out to several companies (including automotive giant Honda) for ideas on how to maintain power for these satellite uplinks, given that Russian airstrikes and artillery barrages have been wreaking havoc on Ukraine’s infrastructure.

Amid these calls for aid and declarations of support, Scott-Railton pointed out a possible danger in using Starlink services. After commending Musk for donating the terminals and making satellite internet services available, he stated that if Russian forces established air superiority over Ukraine, “user’s uplink transmissions become beacons… for airstrikes.” In a series of follow-ups, he offered some background on how this threat could be averted:

“Russia has decades of experience hitting people by targeting their satellite communications. In 1996, Chechen president Dzhokhar Dudayev was careful, but Russian aircraft reportedly found his satphone call & killed him with a missile strike. Satellite phones tend to send signals out in all directions. Making them easy targets. The technology for locating & intercepting them is well-honed.”

He described how the situation is different for Starlink and very-small-aperture terminals (VSATs), which are admittedly more secure. He tweeted that there are still ways to locate and destroy VSAT terminals and noted that Russia has recent experience doing just that in Syria. However, ISIS and other belligerents in the Syrian conflict used strategies to protect their uplinks, which he shared:

“In Syria, ISIS reportedly came up w/ various tactics to avoid being killed by strikes against their satellite internet terminals. E.g. Distancing dishes from their installations, covertly taking a connection from civilian internet cafes’ VSATs, etc.. Deadly cat & mouse. Takeaway: early in a conflict w/disrupted internet, satellite internet feels like a savior. But it quickly introduces *very real, deadly new vulnerabilities* If you don’t understand them, people die needlessly until they learn & adapt. This has happened again. And again.”

Musk also responded to Fedorov’s tweets where he raised power concerns and offered some suggestions. In a series of tweets, he also took the opportunity to address concerns about Russian strikes on Starlink terminals:

  • “Solar panels + battery pack better than generator, as no heat signature or smoke & doesn’t run out of fuel.” – March 2nd
  • “Updating software to reduce peak power consumption, so Starlink can be powered from car cigarette lighter. Mobile roaming enabled, so phased array antenna can maintain signal while on moving vehicle.” – March 3rd
  • “Starlink is the only non-Russian communications system still working in some parts of Ukraine, so probability of being targeted is high. Please use with caution.” March 3rd

Another saving grace is that neither side in this conflict has achieved air superiority yet. According to Oryx, a website that tracks the loss of military equipment through open-source reports, the Russians have lost 13 airplanes, 15 helicopters, and 8 uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs). In contrast, Ukrainian forces have lost 9 aircraft and 4 UAVs. These low losses are consistent with neither side controlling the skies and because both armies are well-equipped with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs).

Nevertheless, these warnings are a sober reminder that no technology is 100% safe in warfare. It’s also a stark reminder of how dangerous this conflict has become for civilians, who find themselves being fired upon by Russian missiles, artillery, and aircraft. At the same time, it demonstrates how VPM Fedorov’s efforts are part of a wider effort to mobilize a “smart force” campaign to counter Russia’s brute force invasion.

History has shown that economics and communications are often the smartest weapons for taking down a numerically superior force! Sometimes, it can also be the key to victory.

Matt Williams

Matt Williams is a space journalist and science communicator for Universe Today and Interesting Engineering. He's also a science fiction author, podcaster (Stories from Space), and Taekwon-Do instructor who lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and family.

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