Could Elon Musk’s Starlink program trigger a US war with China?

July 18, 2022
Elon Musk's SpaceX has already sent more than 2300 Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Billionaire Elon Musk is developing a massive broadband satellite internet network, named Starlink.

A branch of Musk’s SpaceX company, Starlink aims to beam internet access to customers anywhere in the world if they have a Starlink satellite dish. Since the first Starlink satellites were launched in 2019, SpaceX has put more than 2300 of them into a low-Earth orbit. The company plans to send up to 42,000 satellites into space to form a gigantic mega constellation.

The Chinese government has expressed concern about the potential for Starlink satellites to be used in military operations. China claims they could be used to track hypersonic missiles; dramatically boost the data transmission speeds of United States military drones and stealth fighter jets; or even ram into and destroy Chinese satellites.

China has had some near misses with Starlink satellites already. The Chinese government wrote to the United Nations last year to complain that the country's space station was forced to perform emergency manoeuvres to avoid close encounters with Starlink satellites in July and October, 2021.

In a paper published in May in the Chinese journal Modern Defence Technology, Chinese military researchers called for the development of a combination of “soft kill” and “hard kill” methods to counter Musk's Starlink satellite system, if it threatens China's national security. Hard kill methods are spaced-based weapons that physically strike their targets, like missiles. Soft kill methods include jamming and the use of laser weapons.

China already has methods to disable satellites, such as microwave jammers, powerful lasers, cyber-weapons to hack into satellite networks, and long-range anti-satellite missiles. These are effective against individual satellites, but won't be enough to scuttle Starlink. The Starlink constellation constitutes a decentralised system. The researchers also outlined how an attack on the Starlink system would require some low-cost, high-efficiency measures. Exactly what these measures could be remains unclear.

China is also looking to compete with Starlink directly through the launch of its own satellite network. Called Xing Wang, or Starnet, it also aims to provide global internet access to paying customers.

Just two days after Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov asked Musk to deploy more Starlink satellites over the country. Fedorov said that SpaceX has so far provided more than 12,000 Starlink satellite dishes to Ukraine, while adding that all critical infrastructure in Ukraine uses Starlink.

Starlink launched a Falcon 9 rocket bearing 49 satellites from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on February 3, but a geomagnetic storm that struck a day later sent the satellites plummeting back toward Earth, where they burnt up in the atmosphere.

Musk announced on June 7 that the Starlink branch of SpaceX would not be publicly listed on the stock exchange for another three to four years. SpaceX also remains a privately traded company. Musk's other key company, Tesla, went public in 2010.

Musk has said that revenue generated by the satellite-internet constellation will help SpaceX develop Starship, the giant vehicle designed to enable humanity to settle Mars. A forlorn dream.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.