Main Image Credit Communications lifeline: the Starlink satellite constellation has been a gamechanger for Ukraine's fight against Russia. Image: Photocreo Bednarek / Adobe Stock
Inspired by the role that the Starlink constellation has played in Ukraine’s defence, Taiwan is looking to establish a similar capability of its own.
In December 2022, the Taiwanese Space Agency announced that it was planning its own low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite communications project. The project would be run as a company, with the Taiwanese holding ‘a significant minority stake’. This would give the Taiwanese state a sovereign capability with access to independent communications in case of a Chinese invasion – an idea certainly inspired by the extent to which Ukraine has been able to rely on the Starlink constellation while defending its territory from Russian forces.
Starlink Keeps Ukraine Fighting
While Starlink has been in the news cycle for nearly a year, mentioned time and time again in different contexts – from reconnaissance missions to communications – its purpose is simple: the provision of internet access. Independent access to the world wide web is provided in simple steps: using Starlink terminals (which can be purchased on the Starlink website), any individual in the area of coverage can tap into the data link emitted from a satellite flying overhead in LEO, which interacts with a nearby ground station. Given the relative proximity of the satellite to the terminal and the sheer amount of satellites already in orbit (over 3,000 at the time of writing), the connection is steady and reliable.
With 25,000 Starlink terminals in Ukraine already, this has been a gamechanger for the country’s fight against Russia in both the military and the civilian realm. It has enabled Ukraine’s civil society to keep communicating – to project the realities of the war to the rest of the world, and to keep in touch with relatives and friends. On the military side, Starlink has in many cases replaced more traditional military capabilities for command and control. It enables troops to continue their communications, and has allowed units to fly UAVs, which have had a significant impact on the battlefield through target acquisitioning. This has been even more important since terrestrial telecommunications infrastructures have been damaged – in the city of Irpin, for example, all cell towers were destroyed. Furthermore, Russia has been known to re-route broadband data via regions under the control of the Kremlin, first in Donbas in 2014 and most recently in Kherson, where social media and Ukrainian news websites were subsequently blocked. Meanwhile, the independent internet access and consistent flow of information that Starlink provides further halts both the accidental spread of misinformation and the more malicious, deliberate act of spreading disinformation, both of which easily proliferate in conflict zones.
Why Does This Matter to Taiwan?
The whole world has been watching Ukraine, and while lessons have been drawn by militaries everywhere, Taiwan has certainly been keen to observe the structures of communications as they are being managed at the moment. A Starlink-like capability could be useful for Taiwan in several ways.
Starlink has enabled Ukraine’s civil society to keep communicating – to project the realities of the war to the rest of the world, and to keep in touch with relatives and friends
Most significant is the resilience it would provide for the country’s communication network, which currently relies on undersea cables that could easily be the target of an attack to sever the island from the rest of the world. Given the resilience that Starlink has shown to both jamming and cyber attacks, such a capability would provide a reliable (and at the very least alternative) means for command and control, enabling the military to keep communicating and civil society to continue operating. Given that societal resilience plays a big role in Taiwan’s counter-invasion plan, defending against the spread of misinformation is crucial.
Starlink is resilient by nature as well as by design. The lower latency and resulting strength due to the constellation’s location, as well as the deliberate additions made to the system, allow it to work even when subject to vicious attacks. The agility of SpaceX has allowed it to make Starlink impenetrable through a change in the software code. Furthermore, given the frequent power outages in war-torn Ukraine, Starlink terminals can now be powered by a car cigarette lighter. The agility of private companies like SpaceX is part of the reason why truly resilient satellite systems benefit from their diversity. For example, a satellite communications system might have several layers – from declassified but faster data links to commercial satellites in LEO, all the way to a nuclear-hardened core of military satellites designed for classified information passing through their far-away geostationary orbit.
The several different frequencies involved, and the sheer mass of nodes, makes an attack on these systems much more complicated. A kinetic attack (in the form of an anti-satellite missile, for example) will be mostly useless against a large constellation such as Starlink, for several reasons: the sheer mass of satellites means that a single loss does not affect overall coverage, and SpaceX is likely to launch dozens more in a relatively short time span. Even if we were to entertain the idea that an actor would launch a salvo of kinetic attacks into space in order to disrupt the orbit with a large amount of debris, the time it would take to stage such an attack would likely render it operationally insignificant. Moreover, the destruction of an entire orbit would also restrict the usage of the orbit for the attacker, who, as a space power themselves, would likely be reliant on space assets.
To Buy, or Not to Buy?
Given how existential a functioning communications system is for any country – not to mention one under attack – it seems logical that the preference is for these assets to be sovereign, in the firm hands of the state. The potential politicisation of a service so expedient for security purposes is a risk too great to take for any country that faces the risk of invasion. While Ukraine has been able to rely on Starlink in large part, it has had to handle doubts from SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who briefly wavered in his continued support of the venture. Further, a look at the Starlink coverage map will reveal that Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014, remains as blank as the rest of Russia (and China). Further, his off-the-cuff tweets about the geopolitical future of Taiwan and parts of Ukraine have left a bitter aftertaste. While Ukraine will continue to rely on Starlink services for now, potential future clients might take note.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Research Analyst and Policy Lead