US military confirms: Russian forces tap Starlink in Ukraine

The Pentagon has confirmed that the Russian military is leveraging American Starlink satellite communication terminals for their operations in the Ukrainian war zone. John Plumb, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, revealed to the media that the Russians are likely acquiring these items through the black market. 

US: 155mm shell shortage issue is now recurring on anti-UAS guns - the Pentagon
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Breaking Defense, in a recent publication, notes that Washington, along with Kyiv and SpaceX, the private space industry leader, has been coordinating efforts to curb the Russian military’s usage of Starlink technology in Ukraine. 

The discourse about the Russian military’s widespread use of Starlink first emerged in early February of this year. As reported by Ukrainian intelligence, the Russian army purportedly uses Starlink terminals primarily in the Ukrainian regions under their control.

Poland donated 5,000 Starlink satellite terminals to Ukraine
Photo credit: HDBlog

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense’s Main Intelligence Directorate shared an audio clip on Telegram on February 11, presenting it as proof of the “systematic” usage by Russian soldiers. The audio clip, supposedly intercepted, is believed to contain a conversation between two members of Russia’s 83rd Airborne Brigade discussing the installation of terminals in Eastern Ukraine. 

The scale of the usage or the procurement methods for these terminals was not disclosed by the Ukrainian Directorate. Andriy Yusov, the spokesperson, conveyed to Ukrainian media on February 10, leading to speculation about the issue becoming “systematic”

In response to this, SpaceX, the company that operates Starlink terminals, made a statement on February 8 on its social platform, formerly known as Twitter. The company clarified that it has no business affiliation with the Russian government or its military and that its services do not extend to Russia. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, dispelled any rumors about his company providing equipment to Russia on his profile on February 11.

Russian military use Starlink imported from Dubai and licensed
Photo by Yasuyoshi Chiba

The recent rumors suggesting that SpaceX was engaging in the sale of Starlink terminals to Russia have been emphatically debunked. “Such reports are unfounded and patently incorrect,” the statement reads. “To the best of our knowledge, there has been no direct or indirect sale of Starlink to Russia,” it further explains.  

A provocative discovery from the ongoing conflict in Ukraine recently resurrected the debate about Starlink’s use by Russian forces. On April 3, 2024, during a routine patrol near the Romanian village of Tuzla, an unexpected finding was made by the Coast Guard – a mysteriously operating naval drone. The drone bore a striking resemblance to an ordinary search-and-rescue speedboat, from the paintwork to the design. However, its unusual movement pattern raised suspicion.

It’s noteworthy that this news was made public on April 6, 2024, three days after the discovery, following media coverage. The Romanian Ministry of Defense offered only a cryptic comment on the matter, which was posted on their official portal, classifying the unusual object as “seemingly a sea drone”. 

Starlink boosts Russia's sea drone with P-15 warhead in play
Photo credit: Flickr

What really makes this discovery so intriguing is the fact that this device was camouflaged as a simple search and rescue boat. To the untrained eye on a nearby ship, it would appear as nothing more than that—this enhances the potential threat it poses, thereby making it even more unsettling.

Unofficial reports are brewing from the Telegram account of Russia’s “Center for Strategic and Technological Analysis”, typically known as bmpd. The information shared points towards the device being an old salvage vessel that displaces 3 tons of water, utilizing a Starlink terminal for its control mechanism. However, the real showstopper seems to be the speculated warhead, allegedly from the first-generation Soviet anti-ship missile, the P-15, adding a new twist to the tale. 

Claims regarding the use of Starlink in Ukraine by the US military don’t solely stem from Ukrainian sources. Evidence unearthed in Sudan points to the procurement of Starlink satellite terminals by armed groups in Sudan with links to Moscow.

“… It’s hard to say whether Russia’s use of SpaceX terminals can be termed as illegal,” commented Plumb. “But they are undoubtedly unlicensed, and certainly not authorized by the invaded country.” 

Starlink is a satellite internet concept envisioned by SpaceX, an American aerospace manufacturer and space transportation company established by Elon Musk. The project envisages the creation of a constellation of thousands of uniformly produced small satellites in low Earth orbit [LEO], working in combination with ground transceivers. SpaceX plans to provide satellite internet connectivity to areas of the planet where such services are sparse while also ensuring their offerings are competitively priced for urban areas.

Starlink’s ultimate aim is to enhance the existing infrastructure of the internet, bringing speedy and reliable connectivity to areas where internet access has been inconsistent, expensive, or completely non-existent. Its strategy involves positioning satellites in low Earth orbit to reduce communication latency and using lasers to boost internet speeds beyond the limitations set by traditional satellites.  

Every Starlink satellite features a phased array antenna, a tool that allows the satellite to concentrate its signal onto a specific geographic area on Earth, thereby improving the quality and speed of the internet connection. Additionally, each satellite is equipped with ion thrusters, powered by krypton, which enable the satellites to ascend, maneuver in space, and deorbit after their lifecycle ends.

These satellites utilize lasers to communicate with each other, eliminating the need for terrestrial ground stations to facilitate data transfer between satellites. This capability allows for the provision of internet service across the high seas and remote areas. Subsequently, the data is relayed back down to terrestrial stations and eventually disseminated to the broader internet. 

Finally, Starlink employs a process known as ‘trunking’, a method of data transmission where multiple signals are combined for transmission and subsequently separated upon receipt. This process results in an increased capacity for data transmission at any given time, thus enhancing the overall efficacy of the network.

Are you eager to understand how this all operates in reality? Firstly, you’d need a Starlink Kit to connect with the network. This unique assembly comprises a phased-array antenna [or ‘Dish’], a stand, a power supply, and a reliable modem at its core. Interestingly, SpaceX has nicknamed the Dish ‘Dishy McFlatface’. What’s its primary function? To maintain continuous communication with the Starlink satellites by autonomously maneuvering to secure the clearest view of the sky, thereby ensuring your internet connection remains steady and fast. 

Shall we delve deeper into the ins and outs of the comparative advantages Starlink could offer in wartime circumstances or military operations? The standout feature here is undeniably the improved communication ability Starlink provides. Its high-speed, low-latency internet fosters efficient and effectual military communication, particularly in remote or severe environments. The outcome? Enhanced coordination and faster decision-making, both of which are indispensable in times of conflict.

Another noteworthy point is Starlink’s role in providing dependable intelligence and surveillance. With global coverage, real-time data can be swiftly relayed from drones or other surveillance channels thanks to Starlink. This provides military forces the tools to stay ahead of enemy movements and properly assess potential threats. 

US military confirms: Russian forces tap Starlink in Ukraine
Photo credit: BBC

The redundancy and resilience offered by Starlink should not be overlooked either. Conventional communication systems might falter under attack or disruption. In contrast, the robust network of Starlink made up of thousands of satellites, proves to be more difficult to disrupt. Even if a few satellites are affected, others take over ensuring uninterrupted service. This resilience adds another layer of security, making it difficult for adversaries to interfere with military communications. 

Lastly, we must not forget the technological superiority Starlink can provide. This high-speed, low-latency internet service caters to advanced military technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and cloud-based systems. The strategic planning, decision-making, and operational efficiency that these technologies can offer mean that those leveraging this service will have the upper hand.


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