Ukraine is using Elon Musk′s Starlink for drone strikes | Science | In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 27.03.2022

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Ukraine is using Elon Musk's Starlink for drone strikes

Elon Musk's satellites are connecting Ukraine with the internet. Starlink was conceived as a civilian program — but Ukraine's military can also use it to guide drones and strike Russian tanks and positions.

Illustration: SpaceX's Starlink network of satellites, a blue Earth and wifi symbols in space

The Starlink system appears to be playing a significant role in Ukraine's defense

Just after Russia's invasion began in late February, Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov took to Twitter to ask US billionaire Elon Musk to activate his Starlink satellites for use in Ukraine. Musk swiftly tweeted his response: "Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route."

Soon after, a number of terminals and powerful batteries arrived in Ukraine. Others soon followed. Fedorov took to Twitter again to express his gratitude: "Starlink — here. Thanks, @elonmusk."

No secret dispatches, no long debates, no governmental or parliamentary controls: just a very public deal between a politician whose country has been attacked and an enigmatic billionaire who went on to challenge the aggressor, Russian President Vladimir Putin, to "single combat." What at first looked like a PR coup now seems to be playing a significant role in Ukraine's defense.

Ukrainian servicemen push a Bayraktar TB2 UCAV at the Kulbakyne aerodrome

Turkey's Bayraktar TB2 drones, seen here in 2021, have been effective against Russia

'Create target acquisition'

British media have reported that Ukraine's army is making very successful use of Starlink for drone attacks on Russian tanks and positions. The Telegraph reported that Starlink is of particular military significance in areas where the infrastructure is weak and there is no internet connection.

According to The Telegraph, the aerial reconnaissance unit Aerorozvidka is using Starlink to monitor and coordinate unmanned aerial vehicles, enabling soldiers to fire anti-tank weapons with targeted precision. Only the system's high data rates can provide the stable communication required, The Telegraph reported.

An officer with the Aerorozvidka unit described the system to  The Times: "We use Starlink equipment and connect the drone team with our artillery team," he said. "If we use a drone with thermal vision at night, the drone must connect through Starlink to the artillery guy and create target acquisition."

The Times reported that the Aerorozvidka team runs about 300 information-gathering missions each day. Attacks are then carried out at night, according to the newspaper, because the drones, some of which are equipped with thermal cameras, are almost impossible to see in the dark.

Elon Musk in a box on a screen with the word Starlink next to his head and some dots

Satellites like Starlink's have been considered for getting information to conflict regions

Many possible uses

Starlink satellites are intended to provide internet to undersupplied regions far from urban centers. The potential for using satellites to get information to people in regions where the internet is censored had been discussed. Few, however, had imagined that its initial use would be in a European war zone in which one of the aggressor's first acts at the start of the invasion was to target and destroy power supplies and internet connections.

Ukrainians have — or have regained — access to information. According to The Telegraph, Starlink is one of the most popular app downloads in Ukraine, enabling more than 100,000 people to stay updated about what is happening in the war, and to keep in touch with the outside world.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy uses the Starlink satellites to make speeches to the nation and to national parliaments around the world. Quite apart from its military usefulness, Starlink has become vital to Ukraine, both for obtaining worldwide support and for maintaining the unbroken resistance of the people.

Watch video 02:10

After a month of fighting, Ukraine war enters new phase

Target for Russia?

With Russia trying to target and destroy Ukrainian infrastructure, including power and internet, the connection will likely be even more important in the coming weeks and months. This, of course, also means that Starlink reception dishes, which are not exactly inconspicuous, will be targets for Russian troops.

The biggest danger, however, is that the reception equipment can be geolocated while in operation. Shortly after the first terminals were delivered in early March, Musk tweeted: "Turn on Starlink only when needed and place antenna as far away from people as possible."

In addition to targeted attacks, Russia is apparently also trying to use jammers to block internet access from space. But SpaceX says it already has a solution: On Twitter, Musk wrote that a new software update lowers power consumption and can bypass jamming transmitters.

The Kremlin considers Musk's support of Ukraine an aggression. Dmitry Rogozin, the head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, called Starlink's activities interference. "When Russia implements its highest national interests on the territory of Ukraine, Elon Musk appears with his Starlink, which was previously declared purely civilian," he said on state-funded Russian broadcaster RT.

Musk's response was as laconic as ever. "Ukraine civilian Internet was experiencing strange outages - bad weather perhaps? - so SpaceX is helping fix it," he tweeted.

This article was originally written in German.

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