Starshield builds and improves on Starlink’s infrastructure to provide satellite network services to government and military users
SpaceX has just unveiled its Starshield satellite network service intended for government and military use, just as the US military has conducted tests with the company’s Starlink low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellation.
This week, SpaceX revealed its Starshield satellite project on its website, advertised as leveraging Starlink’s technology and launch systems for government use, focusing on earth observation, communications, and hosted payloads – which means clients can load custom equipment in the satellites.
Starshield is touted as offering unparalleled end-to-end user data encryption, with the high-assurance cryptographic capability to host classified payloads and securely process data. It also uses Starlink’s inter-satellite laser communications terminal, allowing it to integrate other satellites into its network.
It is also claimed to have an end-to-end logistics chain, with SpaceX providing all the hardware from ground terminals, antennas, rockets and satellites and operating the entire constellation. This arrangement may address US supply-chain issues wherein manufacturing of sensitive electronics is outsourced to China, giving the latter espionage opportunities on classified information or manipulating these systems entirely.
While there is minimal information about Starshield, its unveiling comes after the US military tested Starlink. Last month, Bloomberg reported that the US had tested Starlink as a possible way to maintain communications with remote military outposts in the Arctic, an increasingly contested region with China and Russia.
The timing of Starshield’s unveiling may indicate that, at present, Starlink needs military-specific capabilities, which Starshield aims to provide.
The military value of LEO satellite constellations has long been understood yet has only been recently validated.
In a 2004 RAND research brief, Robert Preston wrote about the advantages distributed satellite constellations have over monolithic constellations focused on a few powerful satellites. He said distributed LEO satellite constellations cost less to launch, perform better during deployments, are more failure-resistant, and are more survivable in an attack.
In line with that, the Ukraine war may have validated the military value of LEO satellite constellations, vividly demonstrating this space-based capability’s tactical and strategic effects.
In March, a report by the French Institute of International Relations noted the military advantages satellite constellations such as Starshield can bring, such as shorter development time and launch economy of scale, increased performance from proliferation, and exploiting dual-use features of satellite technology.
The report also says that soon, real-time satellite imagery can be requested and received by ground commanders to support decision-making. However, this capability remains only in the hands of the world’s leading military powers.
The Ukraine war has spurred a race by major military powers to acquire satellite constellations, with private companies taking the lead in offering this capability to governments and militaries.
In April, the South China Morning Post reported that private corporations are lining up to provide space-based satellite capabilities to paying government and military clients in the West from Germany, the US and Canada. Companies such as Airbus Defense and Space in Germany, Telesat in Canada, and Kuiper and Starlink in the US are at the forefront of the commercialization of this increasingly vital military capability.
However, China may already be a step ahead of the US in having its dedicated military LEO satellite constellation, as it has been operating the Yaogan LEO satellite constellation since 2006, in contrast to Starlink, which SpaceX first launched in 2019.
Global Security describes the Yaogan as primarily used for ocean surveillance along China’s littorals, providing real-time command and control intelligence support to commanders afloat and ashore, and receiving, processing, and disseminating timely all-source information on mobile and stationary ocean and ground targets.
Further, in a June 2021 blog entry, Steve Hsu notes that China has been using satellites to track US warships in the Pacific. In addition, identical satellites can provide targeting data for their anti-ship ballistic missiles.
Moreover, in a separate blog post from November 2021, Hsu notes the vulnerability of large targets such as aircraft carriers, saying they are easy to track with satellites and that advances in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and sensor technology favor the attacker, not the defender.
He notes that advances in those fields may now have enabled China to hit US carriers with greater accuracy, needing its Yaogan satellite constellation to provide the location of the target to within tens of kilometers and let its missiles’ onboard sensors and AI guide them in their terminal stage to the target.
Despite that, Hsu says it might not be necessary for China to sink a US carrier to serve as a warning shot, as China now has the satellite capability to track all container ships and tankers approaching Kaohsiung in Taiwan or Nagoya in Japan. So all that China needs to do, Hsu says, is to sink one container ship or oil tanker or issue a solid warning to deter all civilian maritime traffic from approaching Taiwan.
Aside from possessing military satellite constellations, China is also taking a page from the West in commercializing LEO satellite services. In January, the South China Morning Post reported that China was establishing a rival to the Starlink satellite constellation. The source said Beijing-based startup GalaxySpace aimed to establish an LEO constellation of 1,000 satellites to compete with Starlink in providing high-speed Internet in remote areas.
Although smaller than Starlink, the source notes that it will be the first to use fifth-generation (5G) technology and that its customers will likely be overseas companies, the Chinese government, and the military. Thus GalaxySpace may be China’s project to provide the Internet as an emerging public good for the international system, reinforcing its status and legitimacy as an emerging power.