SpaceX’s Starshield means Starlink has become a juggernaut

The meteoric rise of Elon Musk’s space venture, SpaceX, has seen it join forces with the US military. The launch of Starshield, Starlink’s military-only cousin, means the commitment is for the long haul, a space security expert believes.

Starlink, Elon Musk’s satellite internet constellation operated by SpaceX, reportedly achieved breakeven cash flow, pushing the company’s valuation to $150 billion.

With over 4,400 operational satellites, Starlink will remain the market leader for years to come. However, SpaceX has also made several launches under the Starshield program, specifically designed to host payloads for military or government purposes.

Announced in late 2022, when the war in Ukraine revealed Starlink’s importance in modern warfare, Starshield satellites have become compatible and interoperable with the Starlink constellation. The program has already got a contract to service the US Space Force.

However, the distinction between Starlink and Starshield may be somewhat artificial. According to Victoria Samson, a space security expert and the Washington office director for Secure World Foundation, Starlink has become so essential that not having a military program may put a target on its back.

Victoria Samson
Victoria Samson.

Why would SpaceX opt to have a program like Starshield?

It was a big deal when they announced Starshield. But there wasn’t a lot of information about it. The contract that was recently announced, I think, was one of the first contracts Starshield has actually gotten. The contract is with the US military – they’re required to provide military communications for the military.

Part of it is just a recognition that they already have the military as a client. And maybe this is a way to separate the space business, Starlink, from the actual military aspects of it. I think it’s more a matter of guaranteeing that they’ll continue to work with the military.

What’s the difference between Starlink and Starshield?

SpaceX isn’t launching an entirely new network [of satellites]. From what’s known now, the Starlink satellites would still be providing most of the capability.

I think it may be proof SpaceX became more aware of its importance. For some time now, Starlink has been the only proliferated constellation that provided satellite-based internet. Amazon recently launched its Kuiper satellites, but those are just two.

I think Starshield is underlying how important Starlink has become. We’re seeing Starlink contracts being held by many countries. For example, they’re going to be allowed in India soon. That’s going to be a vast market. Starlink has become a juggernaut. Before, there was a lot of promise and potential, and now you’re seeing it panning out.

Do you think SpaceX chose to launch the Starshield program after Starlink was used for military purposes in Ukraine?

Let’s look at what happened in Ukraine. From the very beginning of Starlink, SpaceX was in negotiations with Ukraine for having the terminals in the country. When Russia invaded Ukraine, its government tweeted out to Elon Musk for help. And he did.

It’s not like he didn’t know that Starlink was being used in a combat zone. That’s why Starlink was even allowed to be used in Ukraine. It’s somewhat facetious to be all surprised it’s being used for military purposes.

On the other hand, SpaceX was not being paid for the Starlink terminals. I doubt we can sincerely blame a company for wanting to get reimbursed for their services.

SpaceX sent thousands of Starlink terminals to Ukraine for a while. And then, finally, after about a year or so, they asked to get paid. This is not unusual.

What’s probably unusual is how crucial Starlink was to Ukraine’s combat operations.

Exactly. And this is where some complications arise when governments depend on a commercially provided capability they’re not paying for. It was important for the US government to share this capability with the Ukrainian government. Maybe this Starshield effort is a way to correct that.

There are other factors at play as well. As Starlink became more critical for war in Ukraine, there was a more significant concern about it becoming a target. And you see Russian and Chinese officials starting to imply that something, you know, could happen to Starlink.

Humanitarian law does talk about this in terms of what’s considered a lawful target. And if something’s used by combatants, then it is regarded as a lawful target. However, it doesn’t stop there. It’s not like it’s just open season on Starlink just because it may be considered a lawful target.

I will also point out that when you have a proliferated constellation like Starlink with thousands of active satellites, physically taking out one or two satellites will not take down the whole network. And so that’s where you have built-in resilience. I don’t think anyone would try taking down Starlink because it would be highly inflammatory. But things like jamming and cyberattacks are a possibility.

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Talon Jasra
prefix 4 months ago
Fun Fact, the US Air Force has been working with SpaceX on Starlink since 2018. The starshield contract was basically a more public recognition of the existing DoD relationship. The testing and evaluation phase is now complete.
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