January 27, 2024
Russia is trying to cut off Ukraine’s access to Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites, according to space warfare analysts. Since the start of the war, Russia has been using jamming systems to try and deny Ukrainian forces access to commercial satellites. It has attached jammers to its tanks to interfere with satellite signals and disrupt exploding drones, jam Ukraine’s GPS-guided bombs, and jam Ukrainian drones, forcing Ukrainian operators to move closer to their targets on the front lines. Access to satellites has played a critical role in Ukraine’s defense against Russia, notably access to Musk’s satellite network.
Satellite internet has kept Ukrainians online and their businesses running during the war. It’s also made it easier for soldiers to communicate on the front lines and for weapons systems and drones to keep functioning. At the same time, Russia’s jamming has become increasingly better at disrupting Ukraine’s most advanced weapons, hindering Ukraine’s fighting capacity.
However, Russia’s efforts to cut off Ukraine’s access to Starlink satellites have failed thus far, space warfare analysts said.
Brian Weeden, chief program officer for the non-profit Secure World Foundation, told Business Insider: “Russia absolutely would like to find a way to negate Ukraine’s use of Starlink. But that is much easier said than done because of the architecture of the constellation.” Starlink’s signals are stronger and more concentrated because its satellites operate at a far lower altitude than geostationary satellites, per Starlink’s website. Because Starlink satellites are closer to Earth, latency — the delay between a user’s action and a response on the network — is shorter. This speeds up streaming, online gaming, video conferencing, and other activities. In the context of electronic warfare, this makes Starlink’s signals much more difficult to jam, Weeden said. That means Russian hackers haven’t been able to hack Starlink so far, he added.
While there is “very little” open data about Russia’s electronic attacks on Starlink, Weeden said its efforts don’t appear to have yielded much success. Kari Bingen, director of the Aerospace Security Project and a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said: “They keep trying, but they don’t seem very successful.” She said Starlink satellites are both “resilient” and “agile,” with Starlink operators constantly updating their software to overcome Russian attacks.
According to the Counterspace Timeline by the Aerospace Security Project, Russia has tried to approach, target, or infiltrate foreign satellite networks several times since its invasion of Ukraine. On the first day of the invasion on February 24, 2022, Russian hackers launched a cyberweapon against Viasat, an American satellite communications provider offering military communications services to Ukraine. The attack hit a large number of satellite communication stations and affected hundreds of thousands of people in Ukraine and Europe. According to a US assessment of the cyberattack, Russia launched cyber strikes against commercial satellite communications networks to disrupt Ukrainian command and control during the initial invasion.
In March 2022, Finnair reported several instances of GPS jamming when its airliners neared Kaliningrad, Russia, per Reuters. At the time, Finnish president Sauli Niinisto was meeting with Joe Biden to discuss strengthening defense ties between Finland and NATO in response to the Ukraine invasion. SpaceX, which owns Starlink, also came under attack in April 2022. Its engineers fought off Russian jamming attacks by updating the system’s software, an unnamed Pentagon official told BI at the time.
In a post on X a month after the attack, Musk said Starlink has “resisted Russian cyberwar jamming and hacking attempts so far.” However, he also said Russian hackers were “ramping up their efforts.” No other Russian jamming or hacking attacks against Starlink have been reported or made public. SpaceX declined to give BI updates on Russia’s jamming or hacking attempts on its Starlink satellites.
Russia’s growing arsenal
Russia’s been developing an arsenal of electronic warfare systems aimed at jamming communication satellites, according to Space Watch Global. These are R-330Zh Zhitel, a mobile truck-mounted jamming communication station, and Bylina-MM, a system designed to suppress communications satellites, the outlet reported. They have antennas mounted on trucks that transmit a high-power signal to try to saturate all the receivers tuned into Starlink frequencies.
Another is the Krasukha-4 mobile EW system, which can counter airborne early warning and control systems (AWACS) and other airborne radars within a range of about 186 miles, per Space Watch Global.
According to a leaked US classified intelligence document obtained by the Washington Post last year, Russia has also been testing its Tobol electronic warfare systems for several months, hoping to obstruct Starlink’s signals.
Russia also has a wide range of counter-space weapons, like direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles and powerful lasers that can destroy satellites in orbit.
Ukraine strikes back
Ukraine has been targeting them. Last July Ukraine’s special forces appeared to destroy a Tirada and a “Leer-2” electronic system with drones in a video shared by the command of the forces. In November, Ukraine’s military reported destroying multiple Russian systems including a “Pole-21” electronic warfare system and a Svet-KU. As recently as January, the same special forces
said they helped destroy a Russian Tirada-2, a portable radio-electronic suppression system designed to interfere with communication satellites, which was blocking satellite communications in eastern Ukraine. Bingen said it’s not “surprising” that Ukrainian forces would want to take these jammers off the battlefield because they are degrading drones and precision munitions. “This genre, this area of electronic warfare, is only going to increase,” Bingen said.
Thibault Spirlet is a news fellow on Insider’s news team. He previously worked at AFP, Politico Europe, Factal and Daily Express.