28 May 2022

Researchers urge Chinese military to build anti-Starlink weapons

John C. Tanner

ITEM: Chinese military researchers think SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband network could threaten China’s national security, and that’s why China needs to develop “anti-satellite” capabilities to monitor all Starlink LEOsats and – if necessary – destroy them.

That’s according to a research paper published last month by Ren Yuanzhen, a researcher with the Beijing Institute of Tracking and Telecommunications under the PLA’s Strategic Support Force.

The paper’s emergence follows the publication of a commentary piece in the PLA Daily warning the international community that Starlink enables the US military to dominate outer space.

The whole thing sounds silly on its face, not least because Starlink is not the only global LEOsat broadband constellation in the works. Even China is working on its own LEOsat network called SatNet, which is planned to have 13,000 satellites. That means literally thousands of LEOsats will be flying over China, not just Starlink’s.

On the other hand, according to the South China Morning Post, that’s precisely what worries Ren and his co-authors. Starlink alone will have at least 12,000 satellites, which could theoretically make it easier for the US to clandestinely launch LEOsats carrying military payloads amid a batch of Starlink birds.

The SCMP reports that Ren et al are singling out Starlink in part because its parent company SpaceX has signed contracts with the US Defence Department, including one in 2020 to build a new satellite based on Starlink tech that can track and provide early warnings of hypersonic missile launches.

(China is likely also still steaming from a 2021 incident when a couple of Starlink satellites nearly hit the Tiangong space station. Starlink’s assistance to Ukraine after the Russian invasion can’t have helped. And then there’s Elon Musk in general.)

The research paper also claims that US military drones and stealth fighter jets could use Starlink for faster data transmissions, and that Starlink satellites are equipped with ion thrusters that allow them to change orbits rapidly for an offensive move against “high value targets” in space:

Most of that involves upgrading the Chinese military’s ability to track and intercept communications for tens of thousands of constantly moving low-orbit satellites.

As for what kind of “hard kill methods” Ren has in mind, the paper notes that while China has the capability to blast suspicious Starlink LEOsats out of the sky, that’s neither practical nor cost-effective for a constellation of thousands of satellites constantly moving across the horizon:

Some possible attack methods could include microwaves to jam communications or fry on-board electronics, lasers to blind or damage satellites, nano-sat swarms and (of course) cyber attacks on the satellite network.

As for whether Starlink is a threat to China’s national security … well, what isn’t, these days?

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