Elon Musk’s Starlink and other privately-owned space systems will always be in Russia’s or China’s line of sight as long as they provide essential national security services.
SpaceX supporting Ukraine with Starlink satellite constellation infrastructure put forward the question of private businesses’ role in warfare and the space domain. For example, researchers from China and Russia even explored ways to destroy Starlink.
However, the answer is clear to Dr. Bleddyn Bowen, an expert on strategic theory in outer space. Since financially sound commercial space companies rely on military contracts for survival, they are legitimate targets from an adversaries’ point of view.
Dr. Bowen, who is an associate professor of International Relations at the University of Leicester as well as the author of War in Space: Strategy, Spacepower, Geopolitics, and Original Sin: Power, Technology, and War in Outer Space, thinks that organizations that profit from institutions of war should not be surprised they’re seen as government contractors.
We sat down to discuss the hype surrounding Starlink’s use in Ukraine, the state of independence of commercial space companies, and how privately-owned satellite infrastructure looks from an international relations perspective.
There have been many discussions on the Starlink constellation’s impact on Ukraine’s military capabilities. Do you think the constellation added something novel to the way a modern war is fought, or would you consider this more of a hype?
There is a lot of hype around Starlink. We must be careful not to get carried away with what it actually provides. When the war started in 2022, Ukraine was still going through a lot of modernization efforts. Part of that was developing space infrastructure. Ukraine was only beginning that journey.
Viasat satellite services Ukraine used were hacked early on, and that was as far as the Ukrainian government had gotten into developing its space-supported command and control (C2) systems. So, Starlink came along as a new alternative in a context where nothing else was available for the Ukrainians to use and roll out very quickly.
In terms of satellite-enabled C2, as far as I know, there’s been nothing technically or politically novel there. Starlink provides particular bandwidth and connections between centralized command centers with deployed forces. In terms of satellite communications enabled warfare, other than some technical specifics, it’s not a sea change in what space systems do to warfare.
What’s interesting to see is how quickly the Ukrainians seem to have been able to use it and roll it out at a scale. That speaks well for the user-friendliness of Starlink.
“You can’t just dust your hands off of this as a government just because it is a commercial provider. That commercial entity resides in your jurisdiction, and you have power over it.”Dr. Bowen said.
Do you think SpaceX supplying Starlink services to Ukraine is a way for the US government to distance itself from outright declaring it is providing space-based assistance to Kyiv?
I don’t think so. The nature of the technology means that commercial space companies are only ever at arm’s length away from the government in terms of regulation, contacts, and shared interests. This is more like governments allowing companies to do things right. Starlink, in many ways, is just like the Iridium constellation, initially designed to provide a satellite phone system for commercial users.
Starlink just has more smaller satellites with much more bandwidth than Iridium. And Iridium was bailed out by the Pentagon. If it weren’t for the Pentagon deciding that mobile sat phones are useful for the military, Iridium would’ve crashed and burned in the early ’00s. And Starlink’s biggest paying customer is the Pentagon. This isn’t unique to space, but space is very much at the heart of the military-industrial complexes of many places, including Europe, China, India, Japan, and North America.
You can’t just dust your hands off of this as a government just because it is a commercial provider. That commercial entity resides in your jurisdiction, and you have power over it. If you look at the history of warfare, civilian and private assets, and infrastructure have always been targeted when the intensity of the political object of the war is sufficient. Satellites are conceptually and politically no different.
You touched on this in your book Original Sin Power, Technology and War in Outer Space, where you write that “ ‘Commercial space’ may be the wrong word to use when ‘big customers’ are still states and government agencies spending public funds.” Do you suggest that commercial space players are nothing more than government contractors?
They’re just changing the way they approach contracts with the private sector. When NASA did the Apollo missions, they set the design requirements and then contracted the work out to the aerospace companies in the United States. As far back as the Apollo program, the private sector was involved in space.
SpaceX is just a taxi company for astronauts to the International Space Station. That’s the business of the SpaceX Falcon and Dragon. But if the US government decides they’re not sending astronauts to space, that’s it for SpaceX.
And SpaceX, of course, is trying to be the provider of choice for US government civilian and military satellite launches and has successfully broken United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) monopoly. The funny part is that ULA is a joint company of Boeing and Lockheed, which they created to have a monopoly.
There’s not much competition in the commercial space sector, especially in domestic markets. There’s intense competition between governments and national industries, but not within governments or domestic jurisdictions, usually.
“If you are a company that makes money out of the institutions of war, then if war happens, you are a target. You have to be prepared to be a target.”Dr. Bowen told Cybernews.
There have been discussions about whether commercial space players are legitimate targets for nation-states. Do you think countries with commercial space capabilities consider this when planning for space-based deterrence?
No, I haven’t heard that in my conversations with military and government people. Everybody knows that nothing can stop someone from attacking privately owned space systems if they want to. There’s not much you can do about it. I haven’t seen it as an essential consideration. Nobody’s plotting to rely on civilian satellites to avoid attacks. Nobody’s saying that.
I’m asking this because researchers in China and Russia were heard calling Starlink an extension of the US military. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
I mean, it provides important services for the US government. If you give important national security services, and war happens, you’ve got to expect problems. If you are a company that makes money out of the institutions of war, then if war happens, you are a target. You have to be prepared to be a target. You can’t claim, “oh, we’re a private company, don't hurt us.” I’m less concerned about ethics, morality, and legality. Practically, companies like that make themselves a target.
The pool of users will grow as other commercial players populate Low Earth orbit with their constellations. Do you think we could end up in a world where non-state actors and terrorist organizations could employ satellite-based capabilities that were reserved only for superpowers not so long ago?
If you provide ubiquitous infrastructure, especially for the citizenry, people can start using that infrastructure in the same way that car thieves can use the motorways. But the question is how you respond to that. It’s about enforcement and what governments want to do to regulate access to these technologies.
There were a lot of concerns about precise GPS signal access. But suppose non-state actors or unwanted state actors want to weaponize civilian signals. In that case, they will find it difficult to do with the accuracy necessary to guide a precision bomb somewhere. There are ways to degrade the civilian GPS signal in particular areas quite easily.
If constellation-based systems become ubiquitous infrastructure, people will probably want to use them in a certain way. It’s up to state regulations, effective foreign policy, and coordination with friendly governments to curb the threat.
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