How civilian satellites could decide the future of war and peace

Commercial communications in space are altering the way battle is waged on Earth

Companies and countries around the world are moving fast to put satellite systems in space. Photo: Nasa
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Of the 7,000 active satellites circling the globe, only a few hundred are military installations whose secret information is closely guarded.

The vast majority are civilian and the argument is growing that they will be increasingly relevant in winning wars as broadband becomes critical to future conflicts.

The adaptation of commercial satellites by Ukraine has not only been pivotal in fighting Russia, but has also demonstrated to a broader audience that domination in space is as important as it is on Earth.

Companies and countries around the world are moving fast to put satellite systems in space. The race for space is very much on, and currently it’s being won by Elon Musk with his SpaceX company, which has launched 3,224 satellites since 2014.

Sneak and peek

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February it launched a huge cyber attack. Moscow's technicians were targeting an American operator that they considered crucial to how Ukraine's military and other officials communicated. By taking out thousands of terminals of the Viasat system that provided coverage across Europe, the Russians hoped to deal a knock-out blow to Ukraine's defensive efforts.

It did not quite turn out like that, a fact that has proved critical in how things have unfolded since the spring. Remarkably, those terminals were replaced within weeks, but at the same time Mr Musk allowed his Starlink system of mass-produced satellites in low orbit to provide free internet coverage.

That, it is now becoming clear, was a crucial decision. Ukrainian troops can now launch “sneak and peek missions” where a soldier with a terminal can communicate key battlefield intelligence after powering up a system in five minutes rather than the hour needed for military equivalents.

A Starlink satellite-based broadband system set up in a village in the Kherson border region of Ukraine. AFP

“If you can communicate and then move before the adversary can find you and respond, then you've won,” Andy Lincoln of Viasat told the Global MilSatCom [military satellite communications] Conference in London. “The most impressive thing about what the Ukrainians have done is that they've adapted and overcome.

“They live by the maxim of ‘you've got to move, shoot and communicate or else you're dead’. They're fighting for their lives and they don't have time for programs to come along five or 10 years from now.”

Key to success was the “effective use of broadband SatCom”, leading to the conflict being described as “the broadband war”.

An antenna for a Starlink satellite-based broadband system in Izyum, Kharkiv region. AFP

Ukraine’s military now has 20,000 satellite terminals, each costing $1,500, allowing distribution at squad level for troops.

The Ukrainians optimised the use of “inexpensive, rapid-deploy, easy-to-use terminals in a way that lets them survive against a very determined and capable adversary that has the EW [electronic warfare] skills”, Mr Lincoln said.

Most importantly Ukraine has demonstrated that “broadband at the edge will be part of all future conflicts”, therefore the satellite community had to “find ways to adapt new commercial technology”.

Thuraya launch

That explains why leading Middle East tech company Thuraya is significantly expanding its coverage with its satellites already providing communications to more than 150 companies.

That coverage will increase significantly when it launches the Thuraya 4 satellite via a SpaceX rocket in just over a year.

“Besides providing continuous data to our vast base of customers today, we will have multiple new services and platforms added,” Thuraya’s Jassem Nasser told The National. “The satellite will provide higher capacity, higher throughput, better and larger coverage.”

Jassem Nasser, chief strategy and marketing officer at Thuraya. Thomas Harding / The National

The Dubai-based company is also developing a next-generation broadband platform providing “4G slash 5G” coverage, Mr Nasser said.

Established 25 years ago, Thuraya was the first mobile satellite system from the Middle East region, providing coverage in remote areas for aid workers, journalists and government officials.

It is now a key part of the UAE's burgeoning space development, “feeding into that agenda of making the UAE a space hub provider”, inducing many start-ups to head to the Gulf, Mr Nasser said.

Lifeline

Commercial satellites for Ukraine have been both a “lifeline and life saving”, Mr Lincoln told The National.

They provided the crucial link between artillery batteries and forward observers, allowing them to communicate with each other quickly and at high bandwidth.

“I don't want to talk about the exact techniques or tactics that they use but the fact that they are able to do so means the Ukrainians are able to do precision fires,” he said.

The Starlink terminals also allowed Ukrainians to communicate via encrypted apps such as WhatsApp or Telegram, whereas the Russians used normal open mobile phone systems that were intercepted by Ukraine intelligence.

On several occasions this allowed them to pinpoint Russian commanders, which led to the deaths of nearly all the 12 Russian generals killed in the war.

Viasat, a global communications company, has also continued to deliver services through its network in the region including providing free Wi-Fi to all Ukrainian refugee sites in eastern Slovakia.

Russia was a pioneer

Given its legacy — Russia launched the first satellite into space with Sputnik in 1957 — its poor performance using communications is baffling.

Its troops' supposedly high-tech, secure radio system had not been fitted with encryption keys, forcing them to rely on vulnerable Chinese models.

A Soviet technician working on Sputnik 1 in 1957. Getty

“I am surprised,” Mr Lincoln said. “I would have expected more."

But Russian’s failing is not something that “we can rely on next time” because they will learn lessons and future conflicts will influenced by “layers” of satellites, he said.

War in 5G

With 5G becoming prevalent, this will allow militaries to evolve many different capabilities, such as thousands of coffee-cup size battlefield sensors with a long battery life that can covertly detect troops or vehicle movements.

“5G is an enabling technology,” Mr Lincoln said. “But soldiers are resilient and adapt and overcome, so when 5G comes on the battlespace they will figure out ways to do it probably faster than the boffins. But then the two groups working together will really figure out ways to use this innovation.”

He told the London conference that the military satellite community had “struggled to provide what the Ukrainians need in the land domain conflict”. He also questioned whether “we're ready to rely solely on MilSatCom for the next fight — it has to be a blend of commercial dual use and military communications”.

UK space

Britain, which makes many of the world’s satellites, has belatedly entered the space launch community with its first launch imminent at Spaceport Cornwall. It is expected to grow in the next year with SaxaVord sending up the UK’s first vertical launch from the Shetland Islands.

This has led to companies such as Thuraya considering Britain as a launching pad in the future. “We're open to look at all the launching companies,” Mr Nasser said. “The UK development is great as there are lots of requirements in the industry for launching satellites and having a new launching capability [in] the UK feeds into that.”

Viasat has already given investment guarantees to the British space industry, Mr Lincoln said. “Part of the job I'm doing right now is to help find UK partners to do interesting things in space technology,” he said.

Updated: November 11, 2022, 7:57 PM
EDITOR'S PICKS
NEWSLETTERS
MORE FROM THE NATIONAL