Over the last five years, Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, has put thousands of satellites into orbit—with the goal of creating a network of 42,000—in order to give everyone on Earth high-speed, low-cost internet access. All anyone will need is a Starlink terminal. He claimed on Twitter in 2020 that there will be no training required: “Instructions are simply: — Plug in socket — Point at sky.”
Western pundits, journalists and tech enthusiasts have rushed to describe the social benefit they think Starlink will offer to disaffected people around the world: individuals in China will be able to freely skirt China’s Great Firewall to obtain information on politically censored topics, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests; Russians will be able to search for information that is unfavourable to Vladimir Putin or favourable to his opponents; protesters in India, Myanmar, Syria and elsewhere who want to communicate with each other won’t be shut down on the whim of those in power. As John Byrne, the director of telecom service at GlobalData, put it last year, “Satellite potentially turns the tables because the government doesn’t control space; as a result, the government has a much harder time regulating content over satellite.”
In addition, some have seen Starlink as a means for countries in the west to retaliate against cyberattacks. For example, analysts at the Rand Corporation have suggested that “Chinese cyber espionage … recent attacks on Hong Kong’s civil liberties, Russian attempts to influence Brexit or US elections … North Korean attacks on Sony [and] on South Korea’s ATM network are all activities ripe for response.” They claim that space-based broadband internet “outside of government control is both a challenge for authoritarian states and an opportunity for democracies.”
Starlink’s Troubled Image
Despite all these visions of Starlink’s potential impact, when Musk unveiled his plan in 2015 he acknowledged that the network’s coverage could be limited by political forces: “If they get upset with us, they can blow our satellites up, which wouldn’t be good … China can do that. So probably we shouldn’t broadcast there.”
But governments won’t have to blow anything up—in space or on the ground—to prevent their citizens from using Starlink. They have many other tools at their disposal. For example, they can simply refuse to give Starlink permission to operate in their countries, or ban the importation and use of Starlink terminals. Ars Technica reported last year that Russia plans to fine citizens who are caught using Starlink to access the internet. For years, Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, has dominated the market for commercial launches and has had a virtual monopoly on carrying passengers into space, but it is now fast losing market share to SpaceX. So Russia is already predisposed to feel animosity toward Musk’s company. The director general of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, has even taken to ribbing SpaceX on social media.
In an October 2021 article in Tass, Russia’s largest state media organization, Rogozin describes Starlink as an active danger to Russian national security. He accuses Starlink of delivering “purely political, and, most likely, anti-Russian content” (a claim that SpaceX has not yet responded to publicly). He also notes that SpaceX has received hundreds of millions of dollars in US federal and state subsidies, and has entered into contracts with the US Department of Defense. The company’s spacecraft, Rogozin writes, “can become a platform for steering cruise missiles, for changing their flight path when they are already in flight. [They can also be used] for sending orders to special forces, to networks of agents.”
This concern, according to Brian Waidelich, a research scientist with the China and Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Division of the CNA Corporation, is reminiscent of the worst-case scenarios that many Chinese analysts have painted with respect to Starlink. In an email to me of December 2021, he writes that “it’s not uncommon to see Chinese military writings point to Starlink’s past communications testing with the US Air Force and Army as proof of all sorts of future military uses of Starlink, [including] missile guidance.” He notes that “any discussion of timelines, technical constraints, relative likelihood, etc. of various applications” is conspicuously absent from the dire Russian and Chinese predictions about Starlink.
Another point Rogozin makes in his Tass article is that Russia is developing “our own project, Sfera [Sphere]. It was presented to the president earlier this year, and we plan to orbit hundreds of our own satellites to protect our sovereignty.” Similarly, China, according to a June 2021 report in TechCrunch has at least two at least two constellation operating companies: China SatNet and the associated GuoWang constellation (国网national network). The development of all three projects is far behind that of Starlink—although China’s efforts have significantly more backing and technical expertise than Russia’s, and China is more likely to become a serious competitor of Starlink’s.
Starlink also faces potential competition from countries other than Russia and China. According to a Reuters report of November 2021, the Indian government has been reminding its citizens that Starlink doesn’t yet have a licence to operate in India—and is advising them not to sign up for the service. And the new head of the European Space Agency, in a December 2021 interview, expressed a concern that Musk owns so many currently orbiting and planned satellites that he is effectively “making the rules” for space. “The governments of Europe collectively should have an interest [in giving] … European providers equal opportunities to play [in] a fair market.” (Responding to this concern later that month, Musk said, “We’ve not blocked anyone from doing anything, nor do we expect to. Space is just extremely enormous, and satellites are very tiny.”)
It doesn’t help Starlink’s image that it was recently accused of causing two separate near-collisions with the Chinese space station in July and October 2021. According to China’s official complaint to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, Starlink satellites were in an orbit that “constituted dangers to the life or health of astronauts aboard the China Space Station.” (To date, neither Starlink nor Musk has commented publicly on this allegation.)
Block the Signal and the Noise
Of course, if countries like Russia and China block the sale or importation of Starlink terminals, people will certainly smuggle them in, and the leaders of those countries will do what they can to try to stop them. Thus, the co-director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Security, Strategy and Technology, Frank Rose, noted last summer that he expected “Russia and China will continue to develop and deploy a full range of … [anti-satellite] capabilities.” Indeed, within a few months of his prediction, it was reported that Russia had tested an anti-satellite missile and that Chinese scientists had claimed to have successfully tested an anti-satellite space weapon.
Nevertheless, according to CNA’s Brian Waidelich, the technology already exists to block signals from satellites like Starlink’s, which means that countries like China don’t need to shoot anything down—they presumably have “a range of military/civilian counterspace measures to jam Starlink downlink signals.”
In a December 2021 interview with me, Bleddyn Bowen, a space-policy and warfare expert at the University of Leicester, explained that, because countries seeking to suppress the free exchange of information can take these measures, it’s a mistake to think that Starlink poses a new problem for them: “We’ve had widespread information technology for many years now, and what we’ve seen is [that] a lot of authoritarian states manage to keep their control despite the proliferation of the internet and social media and mobile devices. [Information technology] has changed the nature of police states and how they control.”
Bowen further noted that countries such as Cuba, Iran and China “already jam satellite signals.” We can get a sense of what to expect, he said, by looking to “how North Korea controls technology.” He noted that “China will continue to enforce its laws,” but probably not by destroying Starlink satellites. That response, he said, is unlikely to be seen “outside of actual war. Blowing up infrastructure, i.e. satellites, would be very escalatory.” Since “Starlink is a big network of distributed capacity [one would have to disable] many, many of them to make an impact. This would create a huge mess, and cost a lot.” Knocking out a single Starlink satellite would be about as useful as spending a billion dollars to swat a single fly in a room that is buzzing with lots of them.
According to Waidelich, China will probably “permit Chinese citizens to use Starlink or another foreign satellite internet service under conditions in which [Starlink agreed to] comply with Chinese cyber regulatory conditions.” If they didn’t comply, he says, China would probably have “few qualms about denying Starlink signals that are directed at Chinese territory. China’s concept of cyber sovereignty, and its cyber security laws, give it legal latitude to justify neutralizing what they see as cyber threats directed into Chinese territory.”
That said, it doesn’t look like Musk will be willing to modify Starlink technology to abet free-speech suppression by China or any other country. And a representative of Tesla, Elon Musk’s electric car company, has said that that company “will not use the Starlink in China for its vehicles and charging stations.” Musk has also said repeatedly that he has no plans to violate Chinese law or allow his products to do so. And he seems to recognise that China could stop him if he tried. So, whatever else Elon Musk might do, his Starlink project will probably not cause the first war in space.