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Beijing needs the ability to ‘destroy’ Starlink, say Chinese researchers

A researcher from the Beijing Institute of Tracking and Telecommunications advocated for Chinese military capability to take out Starlink satellites on the grounds of national security in a peer-reviewed domestic journal.

According to the South China Morning Post, lead author Ren Yuanzhen and colleagues advocated in Modern Defence Technology not only for China to develop anti-satellite capabilities, but also to have a surveillance system that could monitor and track all satellites in Starlink’s constellation.

“A combination of soft and hard kill methods should be adopted to make some Starlink satellites lose their functions and destroy the constellation’s operating system,” the Chinese boffins reportedly said, estimating that data transmission speeds of stealth fighter jets and US military drones could increase by a factor of 100 through a Musk machine connection.

The authors also expressed concern over the ability of Starlink satellites to quickly change orbits via ion thrusters as an offensive move, or for military payloads to be disguised as Starlink machines and sent into orbit undetected.

This means China will need upgraded surveillance systems to detect the fakes and, according to Ren, the ability to intercept Starlink signals to look for threats.

Unfortunately for the researchers, with 2,400 satellites in orbit, taking out Starlink would be quite difficult to accomplish as the system is extensive enough to continue working even with some satellites missing.

While a “hard kill” method, such as a grapple arm or ballistic missile, may not be the most feasible, a “soft kill” method such as using jamming technology would be more practical.

These days the practice of jamming satellites is considered typical warfare activity, as is the inevitable anti-jam satellite communication systems that comes next.

While Starlink parent company SpaceX is privately owned, it does have contracts with the US Department of Defense, such as an award for building satellites that track and warn of hypersonic missile launches for the Space Development Agency.

Starlink assisted Ukraine with connectivity after a suspected cyberattack took out the previous satellite service amid Russian military aggression. On May 2, Ukraine’s digital minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, tweeted that the service amounted to “crucial support” for the country’s infrastructure and that around 150,000 people use it daily.

While the generosity clearly shows SpaceX has taken a side in the invasion of the Ukraine, China has attempted to appear neutral, with limited success. If China was in any way against Russian aggression, someone should let Russia know, as foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said this week Moscow would lean into its relationship with the Middle Kingdom.

Should China take down Starlink, there are more satellite broadband systems to follow. Amazon’s 3,236 Project Kuiper birds are ready for flight.

China also has its own megaconstellation in progress, called Xingwang or SatNet. The Chinese Starlink analog was established in 2021 and is slated to contain around 13,000 satellites. ®