How Elon Musk’s Starlink Got Battle-Tested in Ukraine

Fast-expanding satellite broadband services are proving decisive during war and other emergencies.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy, entrepreneur, and author, and , a technology writer and futurist.
A Ukrainian soldier speaks on his smartphone outside a building in Kyiv hit by a Russian missile, on Feb. 25.
A Ukrainian soldier speaks on his smartphone outside a building in Kyiv hit by a Russian missile, on Feb. 25.
A Ukrainian soldier speaks on his smartphone outside a building in Kyiv hit by a Russian missile, on Feb. 25. Pierre Crom/Getty Images

“Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route.” With a single tweet on Feb. 26, billionaire Elon Musk—CEO and founder of SpaceX, which launched the satellite-based internet service in 2020—announced the return of broadband data connectivity to darkened swaths of the embattled country. Geopolitics is rarely so influenced by business: For war-torn Ukraine, Starlink has become an information lifeline, keeping battered hospitals connected and serving as a link to drones targeting artillery strikes against Russian forces. Ukraine’s aerial reconnaissance force has used Starlink to connect directly to drones that have knocked out numerous Russian tanks, mobile command centers, and other military vehicles. Kyiv has also given terminals to schools, fire departments, and municipal governments. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Health, 590 hospitals and clinics had received Starlink terminals to help them remain connected during the fighting as of late March.

Ukraine’s Digital Transformation Minister Mykhailo Fedorov reported there are more than 10,000 Starlink terminals are now operating in Ukraine, according to NBC. Unlike cellphone transmission towers, the satellite dishes used by Ukrainian forces for Starlink reception are small—about 23 inches wide—and readily movable to evade detection and retaliation. A Ukrainian soldier identified as Dima—his last name was withheld—told journalist David Patrikarakos: “Starlink is what changed the war in Ukraine’s favor. Russia went out of its way to blow up all our comms. Now they can’t. Starlink works under Katyusha fire, under artillery fire. It even works in Mariupol.”

The terminals are also resilient and adaptable. As Fedorov tweeted, it “wouldn’t be possible to restore 10 [kilometers] of cable connection between villages in Chernigiv region after serious battles so quick” without Starlink. When Russia resorted to electronic countermeasures, Starlink simply pushed out software updates to prevent these, according to Dave Tremper, director of electronic warfare at the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense. Temper said the speed at which Starlink countered the attack was “eye-watering.” Such mission-critical work is not confined to Ukraine. In December 2021, when a series of powerful tornadoes severed internet service for a number of small communities in western Kentucky, the lost service hampered emergency response efforts. Starlink sent technicians and dishes, which provided emergency connectivity within 24 hours.

“Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route.” With a single tweet on Feb. 26, billionaire Elon Musk—CEO and founder of SpaceX, which launched the satellite-based internet service in 2020—announced the return of broadband data connectivity to darkened swaths of the embattled country. Geopolitics is rarely so influenced by business: For war-torn Ukraine, Starlink has become an information lifeline, keeping battered hospitals connected and serving as a link to drones targeting artillery strikes against Russian forces. Ukraine’s aerial reconnaissance force has used Starlink to connect directly to drones that have knocked out numerous Russian tanks, mobile command centers, and other military vehicles. Kyiv has also given terminals to schools, fire departments, and municipal governments. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Health, 590 hospitals and clinics had received Starlink terminals to help them remain connected during the fighting as of late March.

Ukraine’s Digital Transformation Minister Mykhailo Fedorov reported there are more than 10,000 Starlink terminals are now operating in Ukraine, according to NBC. Unlike cellphone transmission towers, the satellite dishes used by Ukrainian forces for Starlink reception are small—about 23 inches wide—and readily movable to evade detection and retaliation. A Ukrainian soldier identified as Dima—his last name was withheld—told journalist David Patrikarakos: “Starlink is what changed the war in Ukraine’s favor. Russia went out of its way to blow up all our comms. Now they can’t. Starlink works under Katyusha fire, under artillery fire. It even works in Mariupol.”

The terminals are also resilient and adaptable. As Fedorov tweeted, it “wouldn’t be possible to restore 10 [kilometers] of cable connection between villages in Chernigiv region after serious battles so quick” without Starlink. When Russia resorted to electronic countermeasures, Starlink simply pushed out software updates to prevent these, according to Dave Tremper, director of electronic warfare at the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense. Temper said the speed at which Starlink countered the attack was “eye-watering.” Such mission-critical work is not confined to Ukraine. In December 2021, when a series of powerful tornadoes severed internet service for a number of small communities in western Kentucky, the lost service hampered emergency response efforts. Starlink sent technicians and dishes, which provided emergency connectivity within 24 hours.

The impact of new low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations, such as Starlink, for providing broadband internet extends well beyond war zones and natural disasters. In the United States, for example, 19 million Americans—6 percent of the population—lack access to broadband, many in sparsely populated rural areas. Although 5G wireless cellular networks may dramatically improve data access for millions of people around the world, they have limited range. Beyond heavily populated regions, 5G will leave plenty of dark spots. Without government subsidies, bringing terrestrial broadband to remote rural areas is expensive. But satellite broadband isn’t free either. For most Americans living in rural regions—not to mention people in the developing world—Starlink is prohibitively costly, charging $599 for installation and an additional $110 per month for the basic plan. (Contrary to SpaceX’s claims, the U.S. government is paying for a substantial portion of the Starlink terminals sent to Ukraine, while the company is donating the rest, in addition to use of the service itself.)

A satellite constellation numbering in the thousands is also more resilient and harder to block.

Meanwhile, the cost of launching a satellite has plummeted, thanks to increased competition and innovation. With its Falcon 9 rocket, SpaceX has slashed its space freight costs to $2,600 per kilogram, a drop by three-quarters compared to roughly $10,000 per kilogram 20 years ago. (Satellite weights vary widely, with a typical Starlink microsatellite weighing 227 kilograms, or around 500 pounds.) This became possible in part through the company’s ability to reuse the rocket’s booster stage. The next generation of SpaceX rockets, the Heavy, cuts costs further to $1,500 per kilogram. Besides SpaceX and rival plutocrat Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, several other companies are also building rocket-launch systems designed to be more affordable and easier to launch more frequently. This creates the capability for a constant stream of rocket launches. Based on this vision, Musk has announced he wants to put 42,000 Starlink satellites into orbit.

While Musk grabs the spotlight, competitors are also planning satellite-based internet services. In early April, Amazon announced it had secured freight capacity on as many as 83 rocket launches as part of Project Kuiper, Amazon’s own initiative to provide global broadband internet via satellite. It was the largest commercial procurement of launch services in history. Amazon will compete directly with Starlink and, to a lesser degree, OneWeb, another satellite operator putting a large flotilla into orbit. If these three operators succeed in bringing about near saturation of satellite broadband coverage, it would make high-speed data access possible from almost any location on Earth at any time. Whether the costs ultimately come down enough to make satellite broadband affordable for the masses, however, is still unclear. The good news, however, is that Indian telcos such as Reliance Jio are entering the game, making competition global.

Of course, satellite data communications are nothing new. The U.S. government has long contracted with satellite operators, such as Viasat, for secure connectivity in the field. But the cost of this service has traditionally been high, and bandwidth and capacity have been comparatively low. The new generation of satellite broadband providers are expected to offer much faster speeds for the same price or less, and LEO satellites offer latency capabilities that rival terrestrial broadband on everything except the highest-speed fiber or cable connections.

LEO satellites have a number of disadvantages, however: They create light pollution that impedes astronomers’ observations, and their low angle of orbit may cause users to lose connection with the service more frequently. The current generation requires ground stations and rooftop reception dishes (though at some point, satellites should be able to beam data directly to and from smartphones, laptops, or other systems). And the tens of thousands of satellites envisioned by multiple operators will create new so-called space junk as some satellites fail, crash into one another (Starlink alone already accounts for the majority of satellite near misses), or otherwise go out of service—for example, when a new systems fails to turn a profit.

On the other hand, satellite connections will continue to work no matter the conditions on Earth. In California, for example, wildfires have shut down broadband access for extended periods in some areas around San Francisco due to multiday power outages. Cell towers’ backup generators only run for a few hours, and cable broadband infrastructure is dependent on electricity. This becomes crucial when 6 in 10 U.S. workers whose jobs can be done remotely continue to work from home all or part of the time. A satellite constellation numbering in the thousands is also more resilient and harder to block.

Starlink, Project Kuiper, and OneWeb will challenge legacy telecommunications providers. In most of the United States, for example, customers have only two terrestrial broadband providers to choose from, a substantial share of Americans has access to only one broadband provider, and broadband costs are high by global standards. In much of the developing world, there is sporadic broadband access and inadequate wireless data coverage from cellular networks.

For authoritarian regimes, control of data and information is crucial to maintaining power. Unsurprisingly, China has announced its own state-sponsored plan to build and launch a constellation of 13,000 LEO satellites using a new, reusable version of its Long March 8 rocket. And it is likely to limit the use of foreign satellite networks by Chinese citizens to maintain the Great Firewall. But LEO satellites will prove to be the biggest test yet to authoritarian restrictions. Blocking data connectivity from tens of thousands of satellites in the sky is far more challenging than blocking big data pipes at countries’ borders. In addition, Chinese citizens could access LEO satellites operating outside of China’s airspace; attempts by the Chinese authorities to block all LEO broadband satellites accessible to its citizenry could also block access for residents in neighboring countries, such as India or Russia. Shooting down non-Chinese satellites as they move across the region risks creating a chain reaction, not to mention clouds of debris that would destroy many unintended targets.

In Ukraine, a steady stream of horrific images and videos from the war zone ratcheted up pressure on Western governments to supply weapons and intensify sanctions. In many regions of Ukraine, Starlink service is what allows people on the ground to continue sharing information and posting to Twitter and TikTok. While Russia may be winning the information war inside its own borders, it has decidedly lost the war to control the narrative beyond them. In China, attempting to identify and prosecute people accessing LEO broadband to circumvent the Great Firewall will be challenging and likely futile. Future information wars will prove even more challenging to repressive regimes seeking to stop their citizens from sharing information.

Vivek Wadhwa is a columnist at Foreign Policy, an entrepreneur, and the co-author of From Incremental to Exponential: How Large Companies Can See the Future and Rethink Innovation. Twitter: @wadhwa

Alex Salkever is a technology writer, futurist, and the co-author of From Incremental to Exponential: How Large Companies Can See the Future and Rethink Innovation. Twitter: @AlexSalkever

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