China sees a military threat in SpaceX's Starlink satellite system. Conceptual Image: Facebook

Chinese state researchers are calling for the development of anti-satellite capabilities against Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet constellation, citing the broadband system’s potential military applications and threat to China’s national security.

Starlink consists of thousands of satellites in near-Earth orbit paired with ground terminals, giving its users high-speed internet access. With more than 2,300 satellites in operation, Starlink is considered a robust and durable system, capable of functioning even if some of its satellites were taken out. 

In a paper published last month in the Chinese peer-reviewed journal Modern Defense, a team of five senior scientists in China’s defense industry led by Ren Yuanzhen, a researcher with the Beijing Institute of Tracking and Telecommunications, stated that “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 team added that China should “vigorously develop countermeasures” against Starlink. The paper concludes by saying that the development of anti-Starlink capabilities is necessary for China “to maintain and obtain space advantages in the fierce space game.”

Ren estimated that US drones and stealth fighters would have their data connection speeds increased by 100 times if connected to the Starlink network. His team also added that the unprecedented scale and sophistication of Starlink makes it “imperative” for China to develop new anti-satellite capabilities to negate its potential threat.

The team suggested that military payloads could be launched alongside Starlink satellites, which would require China to upgrade its existing space surveillance systems to take super high-resolution photos to identify any unusual features on the satellites.

Ren added that China should develop capabilities to intercept signals from individual Starlink satellites, in addition to ground-based optical and radar imaging.

Physically destroying Starlink satellites using anti-satellite missiles would be unfeasible, as “the Starlink constellation constitutes a decentralized system. The confrontation is not about individual satellites, but the whole system. This requires some low-cost, high-efficiency measures,” Ren said.

The Starlink concept is simple: inject thousands of satellite in low earth orbit to create a space-based Internet communication system that will provide worldwide coverage anywhere on the planet. Credit: SpaceX.

Ground-based lasers are also unfeasible, as they would have to be very powerful to overcome atmospheric distortion and damage multiple Starlink satellites in low orbit. This would mean that such a laser would require excessively high levels of power, which may not be feasible to generate.

China has developed an ultra-high-powered microwave weapon that could be mounted on its satellites. This hunter-killer weapon, known as a Relativistic Klystron Amplifier (RKA), could be aimed at Starlink satellites to burn out their sensitive electronics.

However, taking out Starlink satellites individually may be an inefficient method to bring down the system. Moreover, adding an RKA device aboard a satellite may affect its performance, with the device itself potentially overheating and burning up under intense microwave radiation.

China may thus instead develop anti-satellite weapons that can take out multiple satellites in one shot. X-ray lasers are an example of this technology. The concept of X-ray lasers dates back to the 1970s, when it was discovered that lasers amplified by ions have much higher energy than those amplified with gases, with nuclear explosions being envisioned as a power source for these powerful lasers.

One of the weapons envisioned in the Reagan administration’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was a nuclear-powered X-ray laser. This nuclear device was designed to produce an explosion that generated an intense pulse of X-ray lasers. A single bomb could power an array of 50 X-ray laser rods 1 to 2.5 meters long, with each rod aimed at a separate missile thousands of kilometers away. A single detonation would disable dozens of warheads.

The US tested such weapons in the 1980s but could not overcome significant technical hurdles. The beams generated were less powerful than expected, and efforts to focus them for precision targeting failed. US scientists were also accused of manipulating test results for personal reasons and publicity.

Despite the failures, US X-ray laser weapon tests continued until 1992. But X-ray laser technology may have since matured and the technical challenges of the 1980s could potentially now be overcome.

It is thus plausible that China could develop a similar weapon to destroy the Starlink system, as it is one of the few countries that possess X-ray laser technology, with a team from ShanghaiTech University testing such a device last year.

If weaponized, the device may be able to take down multiple Starlink satellites in one attack, dramatically reversing the lopsided cost-exchange ratio of other anti-satellite weapons such as interceptor missiles, hunter-killer satellites and even ground-based lasers.

China has undoubtedly been watching closely events in Ukraine and is taking notes for its own Taiwan contingency. Beijing has no doubt noticed how US space-based assets such as Starlink have played a huge role in enabling Ukrainian resistance to inflict heavy material losses and military reverses and may seek to avoid a similar scenario should it choose to invade Taiwan.

Starlink satellites have reportedly enabled Ukrainian forces to monitor and coordinate drones, enabling soldiers to fire anti-tank weapons with great precision as well as spot targets for artillery strikes. The system was reportedly instrumental in the sinking of the Russian cruiser Moskva, providing targeting data for Ukrainian shore-based missile batteries.

China sees a military threat in SpaceX’s Starlink satellite system. Image: Facebook

Similarly, the US could potentially bring Starlink to bear in defending Taiwan amid a potential Chinese invasion. US President Joe Biden stated on May 23 that the US was committed to defending Taiwan, in an apparent shift from the US’ longstanding policy of strategic ambiguity.

China may opt to take out GPS to cripple US and Taiwanese navigation and precision strike capabilities during an invasion. In such a case, however, Starlink timing signals could be used as a substitute for GPS and to pinpoint any location on Earth to an accuracy of eight meters, providing a feasible backup to the decades-old satellite system.

Starlink satellites could also be turned into ad-hoc anti-satellite weapons to take out China’s own space-based military assets.  Last year, Starlink satellites almost collided with China’s Tiangong Space Station on two occasions, forcing the station’s crew to take cover each time. While China mounted a diplomatic protest over the incidents, the US remained silent.

Moreover, the US is developing nuclear propulsion technology for its satellites, which if implemented for Starlink would give its satellites effective maneuver warfare capabilities in space, increasing their flexibility for both offensive and defensive operations, and increasing their survivability against Chinese or Russian anti-satellite weapons.

Starlink could also be used as an early warning system against China’s ballistic missiles and hypersonic weapons. In October 2020, the US Space Development Agency (SDA) signed a US$149 million contract with SpaceX to develop four missile-tracking satellites equipped with powerful infrared sensors based on its Starlink design.

These satellites could become a constellation of space-based sensors and provide targeting data to US missile defense systems, potentially blunting any Chinese missile attack.