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Ukraine got Starlink satellite internet. Can the Russians attack it?

Starlink 1300 satellites, coverage

You don’t need telling that there is a war situation between Russia and Ukraine. There was tension between the countries and last week the Russians invaded Ukraine. Missiles were launched, bombs thrown and all the usual war stuff. 

This military activity disrupted Ukraine’s internet and as you know, the internet as a communication enabler and more has become an essential tool for armies. The Ukranians were therefore at a disadvantage when their internet was disrupted.

The Ukranian vice prime minister and minister of digital transformation Mykhailo Fedorov sent out a tweet to Elon Musk asking for his help in providing internet access in the country. Tweeted the vice prime minister, “@ElonMusk, while you try to colonize Mars — Russia try to occupy Ukraine! While your rockets successfully land from space — Russian rockets attack Ukrainian civil people! We ask you to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations and to address sane Russians to stand.”

Find out what Starlink is all about here but simply put it’s “basically a bunch of low-orbit satellites constructed by SpaceX that will deliver the internet.” And if you will believe it, you can preorder it right here in Zimbabwe.

Elon Musk responded favourably to the request. I believe he embraced the opportunity to help with both hands as he could use some good PR after the last couple of years he has had. 

At the same time he probably did not like being put on the spot especially considering that Tesla, his electric vehicle maker, was starting to pick up steam in Russia, commanding 32% of EV sales. Plans to open a manufacturing plant in Russia may have to be tabled because I don’t think Putin, the Russian president, appreciates Musk helping Ukraine during this war.

Musk told the Ukrainian vice prime minister that Starlink was now active in Ukraine and promised to send terminals and the other hardware required to set up internet access. The first batch of hardware arrived in Ukraine and the VPM thanked Musk,

A few satellite communication technologies

Satellite phones

Russia has experience targeting satellite communications. As far back as 1996, they tracked down a Chechen leader via a satellite phone and killed him with a missile strike. 

Satellite phones became popular in militaries because the phones communicate directly with a satellite as opposed to cell phones that need land-based towers (base stations). The more isolated areas that army personnel or govt leaders can hide out usually do not have cell service. 

Hence, satellite phones became one of a few options in those areas. It also helps that these satellite phones are harder to track than cellular phones. Although harder, with the right equipment and technical knowhow, satellite phones can be tracked. This is because they still send out signals in all directions like cellphones and militaries are now experts at locating and intercepting them. Like what happened to the Chechen leader.

VSAT

With VSAT, instead of a phone communicating with a satellite directly, a satellite dish is set up which handles the direct link. This setup is better than sat phones because there is a more directional signal, rather than spraying signal in all directions. This makes it harder to track than sat phones.

However, harder does not mean impossible. Even VSAT terminals can be tracked and Russia has tracked them before. In Syria, the Russian army located many VSAT terminals and nuked them. It doesn’t help that geostationary satellites are used here.

Musk’s Starlink improves on VSAT. Starlink uses highly directional radio waves via phased array antennas – which increases bandwidth and reduces power use – but also makes them harder to detect and target.

The Starlink terminals are much more directional than the omnidirectional sat phones and the geostationary VSAT. A terminal can be placed away from the people and the connection to the terminal made via cable. Reducing the chances of casualties should a terminal be located and nuked.

The Starlink terminals also cost around US$500 and should one be nuked it wouldn’t be too expensive to replace. With that low cost, even decoy terminals can be placed in the middle of nowhere to trick Russia into bombing them. Russia could end up using a million dollar missile to nuke a $500 terminal and so they likely won’t proceed with this action unless corroborating intel is sourced.

There is also the fact that some civilians are using Starlink and Russia would be guilty of war crimes if they bombed those. One Ukranian citizen revealed that his Starlink unit was working and boasted of getting speeds of up to 200Mbps. Man, even war torn countries are getting better speeds than we are getting in Zimbabwe.

For Russia, distinguishing civilian users from military users would probably take too much effort. Meaning Starlink is likely to prove to be helpful to the Ukranian military.

The main point is that it would cost Russia too much money and time to try to destroy or intercept Starlink signals. They are better off targeting the cell towers that are still operational. 

All this makes you wonder how Zimbabwe is prepared for something like this.


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13 thoughts on “Ukraine got Starlink satellite internet. Can the Russians attack it?

  1. Something to note is that both Russia and it’s totally not ally and 100% neutral China have anti-satelite capabilities. If Putin’s cyber troops can’t take care of it, he may pull out that card if the strategic value is high enough.

  2. Russia doesn’t need to nuke any satellite. We keep forgetting that Russia is home to top tier hackers who probably have an active hack on all those satellites. And also the starlink technology covers the entire globe, you just need a Starlink satellite receiver to connect.

    1. And what is the wisest contribution you have offered today. What you know is not what everyone knows. If it did not help or improve your mentaĺ faculty, then leave it to those of us who have derived edification from the article.

    2. Kodos bro or sis. Why is a tech website yapping about Ukraine attacking Russia or is it vise vesa? Who cares?
      And this explanation about Vsat, starlink, etc. Whats it doing here on techzim?
      And this tschnically deficient guy. Elon who? Whats he got to do with readers and followers of techzim.
      Yes a dump article indeed.

  3. Starlink is the only non-Russian communications system still working in some parts of Ukraine, so probability of being targeted is high. So definitely the Russians will attack it.

    1. When a man like Elon who has grandiose ambitions and an even bigger ego but is not known for his charitable works suddenly gets all generous and donates starlink stations when asked. Yah you just know something is going on. In the middle of a supply chain crisis where microchips are in short supply and the waiting list with people who have paid for starlink stations is not getting any shorter. And for some reason there were enough stations sitting around not being sent to customers who had already paid and were asking daily for what they paid for? Then Elon just decided to donate them to Ukraine? I don’t believe it. Anything is possible with Elon and his love for the limelight but I think that maybe the US govt asked him to supply the Ukraine and the whole twitter thing was done to give US govt plausible deniability. Russia might have a way to mess the starlink satellites but outright destroying them is out of the question,because that would create debris that would be dangerous for the satellites owned by many different countries and attract even more condemnation to Russia. Besides the fact that the starlink satellites are small and easily replaced making it not worth the effort.
      Watching this war. I realise that this war really has nothing to do with people like us.
      Consider the fact that whilst bombs are falling, sanctions being thrown around. The gas pipeline linking EU to Russia is still intact. And gas is flowing into the EU from Russia as we speak. The gas flowing right now was ordered and paid for within the last 3 days. And Ukraine is also collecting transit fees on that same gas from Russia right now. I know that they say truth is sometimes stranger than fiction but this is too strange!

      Now let’s use a few of the wars in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq as an example.
      The electricity was down on 3rd day at the latest plunging cities into darkness.
      The WHO was warning of a humanitarian crisis as people got cut off from the water supply by bombs that “accidentally” fell on treatment facilities
      People were running out of food because all the shops and factory’s were closed or bombed “accidentally”
      Even the USA “accidentally” bombed a few civilian hospitals /press facilities.
      In Syria when the west was supporting what was supposed to be the “good terrorists”(before they became ISIS and became a threat to everyone) to fight Assad they were given guns lot’s of guns and cheap rockets and a bit training as well as some of Intel about the position of Syrian troops.
      Ukraine gets satellite imagery directly from the CIA, plenty of guns, container loads of Javelin and Stinger missiles, the best rockets money can buy eg Carl Gustavs, Panzerfusts and the like. (1 javelin costs $78000). Let’s not forget the few hundred special forces soldiers providing training.
      So while the refugees from those wars were held back at the borders and denied entry, Ukrainians are waved through but Nigerian students who where learning in Ukraine are held back at the Polish border as they try to escape the war in Ukraine.

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