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Russia-Ukraine War: Starlink Row Offers a Cautionary Tale on Role of Private Space Industry in Wars

A controversy emerged after Ukraine claimed that the Russian forces are using Starlink internet services in occupied areas. Despite Space X claiming that it has no links with Russia, the controversy refuses to die down.
Vitali Klitschko, Mayor of Kyiv, and his brother Wladimir Klitschko with Starlink terminals shipped to Kyiv during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0 DEED.

During the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, the role of the United States’ aerospace agency SpaceX has become very prominent. In February 2022, Ukrainian authorities requested support from SpaceX, mainly for space-based internet services. In response, they were provided with Starlink satellite internet service as the war destroyed the existing network. Today, Starlink is being used by civilians as well as the military in Ukraine. Also, possibly Ukraine could be getting high-resolution satellite imagery from companies like Maxar and Planet Labs (assistance form CubeSats).

At present, after using these services for the last two years, Ukraine has claimed that the Russian forces are using Starlink services in occupied areas. The problem appears to be more ‘systemic’. Starlink has claimed that it has no links with Russia. However, there is a possibility that Russian forces in occupied areas of Ukraine could be using Starlink terminals provided by SpaceX, or may have used them during the early phases of the war for the purposes of satellite internet services.

There are reports which claim that terminals are being used by units like Russia’s 83rd air assault brigade in the partially occupied eastern region of Donetsk. Technically, Starlink terminals should be ‘geofenced’ to restrict any operations from unauthorised locations. Knowing Russia’s skills in the cyber offensive domain, it could be possible for them to ‘spoof’ the geofence to make a terminal in a blocked area appear as if it is in a permitted area.

Role of private space players in wars

Interestingly, the private space industry coming to the assistance of a state during a war is not new. During the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq had access to the French SPOT commercial imager. Much before the war, the French agency had some commercial agreements with Iraq. The US used diplomatic channels and a UN-mandated embargo on satellite imagery to stop the sales to Iraq, allowing the US and allied forces to have a monopoly on satellite imagery.

It was reported that during September 2022 Ukrainian forces had planned an attack on the Russian naval fleet based at Sevastopol in Crimea. They had six lethal drone systems ready for this purpose. However, these systems could not get any support from Starlink, the satellite communications system. This system was not operative in this region, and as per Elon Musk, since he was not keen to expand the war towards Crimea, he refused any assistance. As per him, he had a discussion with the Russian ambassador to the United States and was warned that any escalation of the war to the Russian-occupied Crimea area would lead to a nuclear response.

All this gives us some glimpses into what role the private space industry (and their owners) could play in future wars in deciding their outcomes. Elon Musk is known as an inspiring and visionary entrepreneur. But, he is also known as a person with multiple moods and modes. In the current context, it is he who has decided to avoid any possible entry of nuclear weapons into the conflict. The decision taken by him in the interest of humanity should be welcomed. However, it is not about any particular individual, but the idea itself that such a decision was taken by a private individual is itself very frightening.

SpaceX board member Steve Jurvetson holding a Starlink user terminal in June 2020. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Steve Jurvetson/CC BY 2.0 DEED

History tells us that during conventional wars, winning sides use captured weapons and equipment as war trophies. Mainly, guerrilla forces are interested in capturing the weapons and equipment of enemies for reuse. Today, the situation is a bit different, and in an unfinished Ukraine war, it appears that Russia is using the assets of SpaceX available on the ground.  There is a possibility that if some Ukraine state assets were available in occupied areas, Russian forces could have used them also. However, the broader question that needs to be asked at this point is if the private space industry decides arbitrarily about which actor involved in war should be given access to their facilities. From the 1991 Gulf War to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, space technology has evolved and so is the case with the private space industry. Against this backdrop, there is a need for some introspection about the role of the space industry in security matters.

It is a reality that the private space industry is here to earn profits and there is nothing wrong with this. It would sustain provided it earns profits. It is important to have some mechanism of checks and balances in regard to the role of private space players in security matters. Initially, SpaceX had decided to offer the services to Ukraine free of cost.  Subsequently, the US defence establishment has got into an official contract with Starlink in this regard. The exact details of this contract are not known. There is a possibility that any space industry in a driver’s seat could look after their own interests than to bother much about the geostrategic consequences of their actions. Also, there is a possibility of the private space industry going ‘rouge’.

Any proliferation of high-resolution commercial satellite imagery holds a possible danger. There is a possibility that the private space agency would not even come to know about the actual intent of its customers behind acquiring such information. Today, states are found keen to outsource various satellite-based services from remote sensing to commutations to private space agencies. Obviously, during wars (even otherwise) states would be required to depend much on the private space industry.

Today, agencies like SpaceX are capable of manipulating geopolitics, if they desire to do so. Owing to the increasing government encouragement, more private actors like SpaceX are likely to emerge in the future. During the recent much talked Tucker Carlson’s interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin, there is a mention that Elon Musk has already had a chip implanted in the human brain and in future states would be required to deal with private actors like him to ensure no misuse of technology happens.

Obviously, critical technologies in private hands, be it space technology or any other emerging technology, there always would be some associated security challenges. The issue of the use of private space players in the business of warfare needs a critical assessment. Encouraging private industry is important for the growth but at the same time the history of East India Company should not be forgotten.

Ajey Lele researches space issues and is the author of the book Institutions That Shaped Modern India: ISRO.

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