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Starlink is the world’s first and largest satellite constellation using a low earth orbit to deliver broadband internet services across the globe at high seas, polar regions and remote areas. Starlink has a persistent role to play during the conflict between nations.

In February 2024, Israel’s Knesset reportedly allowed the installation of a Starlink connection unit at a United Arab Emirates (UAE) field hospital in Rafah.  Starlink, a project initiated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, delivers high-speed global internet coverage using a network of satellites positioned in low Earth orbit (LEO) which is around 342 miles above the Earth’s surface. As such, since its launch in 2019, Starlink has amassed more than 2 million active subscribers spanning over seven continents and 60 countries. The growth of Starlink has surpassed subscriber numbers achieved by conventional satellite service providers within a significantly shorter timeframe. This has likely compelled industry experts to project that Starlink could contribute over 40% to SpaceX’s overall business. Beyond consumer services, Starlink has expanded its reach to serve enterprise clients in the maritime and aviation sectors. The service has received acclaim for connecting remote areas and facilitating essential communication during natural disasters and conflicts, such as the Russia-Ukraine war. 

Meanwhile, the US military successfully conducted trials on a military adaptation of Elon Musk’s “Starlink” communication network, named “Starshield.” This technology harnesses low Earth orbit satellites to establish a reliable network for soldiers, acting as a backup system if the primary communication system encounters interference from adversaries. Starshield is specifically tailored for military applications, ensuring secure communication, space situational awareness, and alternative solutions for positioning, navigation, and timing. Moreover, it is equipped with robust cryptographic capabilities for secure data processing and the system is designed to be user-friendly for swift deployment on the battlefield. 

These developments have been followed by concerns about the potential impact of Starlink’s extensive satellite constellation on geopolitics. Notably, Elon Musk announced that his Starlink satellite service would offer internet access to internationally recognized aid organizations in Gaza amid a telecommunications blackout. This led Israel’s Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi to state that “Israel will use all means at its disposal to fight this.” Following October 7 Hamas attack, residents in Gaza-border communities launched a project to import a single Starlink satellite internet service terminal from the US. This terminal was installed in Moshav Ein Habesor to act as a backup, ensuring uninterrupted internet and communication services. The initiative stemmed from the residents’ lack of communication equipment during the attack and their reliance solely on a local alert squad’s WhatsApp group for communication. Subsequently, attempts were made to acquire several Starlink terminals for communities near the borders with Gaza and Lebanon to bolster communication capabilities. Although initially approved by the Israeli Communications Ministry, Starlink’s service in Israeli towns close to the Gaza border was later suspended by the company, citing the Communication Ministry’s alleged restriction on its operation in Israel. 

Similarly, since their introduction in Ukraine, Starlink satellite internet terminals have played a crucial role in enabling communication for the country’s military amid the destruction of cellular and internet networks in the conflict with Russia. Approximately 20,000 Starlink units have been donated to Ukraine, costing SpaceX around $80 million. However, SpaceX has warned the Pentagon that it may cease funding the service in Ukraine unless the US military contributes to the maintenance costs, estimating the cost to be close to $400 million for 2024. This was slated to increase as the Ukrainian military’s commanding general reportedly made a direct request to Musk in July 2023 for almost 8,000 more Starlink terminals. SpaceX’s request for the US military to assume funding has caused tension, with the Pentagon expressing dissatisfaction with SpaceX amid a breakdown of costs showing that the majority of Starlink terminals in Ukraine received full or partial funding from external sources, including the US government, the UK, and Poland. However, SpaceX claims to have paid for about 70% of the service provided to Ukraine and seeks Pentagon support to cover the remaining costs. 

Despite this, the focus for Starlink remain on its military applications, including secure communication and space situational awareness during conflicts highlights the strategic importance of Starshield in enhancing military capabilities. Moreover, the user-friendly design of Starshield remains an important feature, enabling non-specialized soldiers to set it up quickly on the battlefield, enhancing its accessibility and usability. Meanwhile, the emphasis on delivering space situational awareness aligns with the military’s growing interest in monitoring and understanding activities in outer space. These factors will likely lead to the widespread usage of Starlink in conflict zones. 

Furthermore, recent tests by the United States Air Force using F-35A fighter jets demonstrated successful data transmission through Starlink satellites at speeds up to 160M/S, 30 times faster than traditional connections. This capability could allow unmanned equipment armed with Starlink devices to serve as tactical relay platforms, enabling operators to command multiple UAVs simultaneously. In 2019, SpaceX likewise received funding from the US Air Force to assess the capability of Starlink satellites to connect with military aircraft under encryption. Subsequently, in May 2020, the US Army entered into an agreement with SpaceX to use Starlink’s broadband for data transmission across military networks. Additionally, SpaceX secured a $150 million contract in October 2020 to develop military-use satellites. The collaboration continued in March 2021 when SpaceX announced plans to partner with the US Air Force for further testing of the Starlink Internet. For instance, Starlink has cleared to be utilised in contentious and difficult terrains such as the Arctic. In terms of space resources, SpaceX’s Starlink program is positioning itself as a dominant force, aiming to monopolise strategic resources in Low-earth Orbit (LEO). With plans to launch 42,000 satellites, Starlink could occupy over 80% of the LEO’s capacity of approximately 50,000 satellites. This aggressive move to control orbital positions and frequencies reflects SpaceX’s path to establishing monopoly in the space application market.

The military applications of the Starlink program are also poised to provide the armies with a strategic advantage on future battlefields, solidifying its dominance in space. Some experts suggest that if SpaceX installs root servers in space, Starlink could become the second independent global internet, posing challenges to countries in defending their cyberspace sovereignty and information security. For instance, Starlink has collaborated extensively with the American military. Starlink satellites also could be equipped with reconnaissance, navigation, and meteorological devices, significantly enhancing the US military’s capabilities in areas such as remote sensing, communications relay, navigation, positioning, attack, collision, and space sheltering. As SpaceX expands its influence across satellite manufacturing, ground station construction, rocket launch and recovery, and satellite operation and services, it has the potential to create a vast Starlink biosphere deeply integrated with unpiloted driving, Internet of Things (IoT), cloud data, and smart city technologies. This could result in the emergence of a new industry and value chain, raising concerns that Starlink might be driven by more opaque goals and unilateral decision-making. 

However, these developments have detracted from the influence that private companies have come to wield on the battlefield. For instance, Elon Musk reportedly instructed his engineers to deactivate Starlink satellite communications near the Russian-occupied Crimea coast to thwart a planned Ukrainian drone strike, fearing it could escalate tensions and lead to a nuclear conflict. Musk’s decision resulted in the drones’ losing connectivity and safely washing ashore. Musk later clarified that the satellites were never activated in those regions, emphasizing his reluctance to support offensive purposes. 

These events have been followed by reports that SpaceX is contemplating an initial public offering (IPO) for its Starlink satellite business in late 2024 to leverage the escalating demand for space-based communications. In preparation for a potential IPO, the satellite unit’s assets are being transferred to a wholly owned subsidiary. Although no definitive decisions have been reached, there’s a chance that SpaceX might retain the unit, potentially pushing the IPO timeline to 2025 which is anticipated to result in approximately $10 billion in sales next year, surpassing SpaceX’s rocket launch business. Despite Musk dismissing reports of the IPO plans as “false,” the move aligns with SpaceX’s strategy to expand its footprint in the space-based internet market, where it competes with rivals such as Amazon’s Project Kuiper and British government-backed OneWeb. The IPO could also increase competition and scrutiny in the space-based internet sector. Additionally, the fluctuation in the stock value of a publicly traded company may introduce uncertainty in maintaining stable funding for ongoing military projects. This volatility has the potential to affect the predictability of resources available for planning and executing long-term defense initiatives.

Nevertheless, the emergence of privately operated satellite systems for military applications in geopolitically charged conflicts introduces a host of intricate challenges. Among these, the potential ramifications of non-payment of dues pose a significant threat to the operational capabilities of involved entities, while discontinuance of services on the battlefield may undermine the competitive advantage of customers. Moreover, the participation of the US military in such scenarios may set a precedent for other governments dealing with asymmetric capabilities developed by private sector entities. Despite efforts towards closer cooperation, private companies find themselves navigating the complex terrain of distinguishing defensive from offensive actions and delineating between civilian and military purposes. This nuanced differentiation becomes pivotal, as it shapes the trajectory of subsequent actions. Inexperienced companies are further tasked with assessing potential escalation risks. In this unfolding landscape, the strategic transformation amid the proliferation of dual-use technologies hinges on fostering a more transparent and collaborative relationship between the private sector and the military. This collaboration demands a careful balance, requiring both agility, regulation and a deep understanding of the evolving dynamics at the intersection of technology, defense, and geopolitics.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies

Title image courtesy: Spacex

By Arushi Singh

Arushi Singh did her master's in Geopolitics and International Relations and is currently focussed on geopolitics of West Asia, Africa, Russia's foreign policy and emerging technologies. She currently serves as a researcher at the consortium of Indo-Pacific researchers and works as a geopolitical risk analyst.