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China and Taiwan Recognize Starlink’s Military Value

Ukrainian Starlink traffic March 6-May 22, 2022 (source)

Starlink has a conflict of interest.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, SpaceX had around 2,000 satellites in orbit. It was clear from the first day of the war that a low-Earth orbit (LEO) constellation of around 2,000 satellites would be a valuable military and civilian asset. The first truckload of Starlink terminals arrived in Ukraine on February 28, 2022, four days after the invasion. By March 19, there were 5,000 terminals in Ukraine and 150,000 active daily users by May 2nd.China and Taiwan have both seen the strategic value of 2,000 Starlink satellites.

Initially, China planned two LEO Internet service constellations, but they were abandoned in favor of a single constellation, GuoWang, which would be operated by a state-owned company called China SatNet. Since satellite Internet had been deemed critical infrastructure China SatNet was not placed under The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), China’s main state-owned space conglomerate, but was made an independent entity at the same level as CASC, empowered to select its own government and privately-owned launch providers, satellite producers and other vendors.

China space consultant Jean Deville thinks it is likely that the GuoWang satellite constellation will start to deploy this year on a Long March 5B rocket. The mass of Starlink Gen 2 v 9-1 satellites is 303 kg and the mass to LEO of a Long March 5 is 25,000 kg. If GwoWang’s satellites had the same mass, it would take 83 fully packed launches to orbit 2,000 satellites, and doing that in five years would require developing reusability.

China sees Starlink as a weapon (source)

The Chinese assessment of Starlink as a military threat is found in articles like:

The Taiwan Ministry of Digital Affairs has noted that since the Russian invasion, Ukraine “has depended on Starlink satellite communications to connect to the world” and they have an $18 million plan to place satellite receivers in 700 places at home and abroad, to maintain government communications “during emergencies such as natural disasters or wars.” The ministry said it was “willing to cooperate with any qualified satellite service provider” and that is wise because Elon Musk would have a conflict of interest in the case of a war between China and Taiwan and we may have already seen evidence of that conflict.

Taiwan’s vulnerable undersea cables (source)

In February 2023, SpaceX’s chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said “We know the military is using [Starlink satellites] for comms, and that’s ok ... But our intent was never to have them use it for offensive purposes” and they began geofencing satellites when they were above water or Russian-occupied territory inside Ukraine.

In March 2022 I wrote that the Ukrainian army was using drones to spot targets and relay their coordinates over Starlink to “the artillery guy and create target acquisition” and they were also using drones equipped with bombs.

That sounds “offensive” to me, but more likely Shotwell was going along with the peace plan Elon Musk tweeted calling for Ukraine to cede Crimea and holding UN-supervised elections by the people who remained and were still alive in the “annexed regions.”

More cynically, there may have been pressure from Russia’s ally China. Tesla plans a large battery factory in China and makes and sells a lot of cars there, and Shotwell knew that the Chinese government had stalled Tesla’s plan to expand auto production there because of concerns about Starlink in January. (I wonder if Ukraine was discussed during Musk’s recent trip to China).

The above is speculative and indirect, but the threat to Tesla would be direct if Starlink were to aid Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion. (Tesla would be in jeopardy in the case of a Chinese invasion regardless of Starlink). Taiwan should be talking with OneWeb, Telesat, Amazon Project Kuiper, and the European Union’s recently approved IRIS² project and consult the technicians and military people working with Starlink in Ukraine.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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