Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites are making the Chinese government nervous enough that they’re working on plans to disable them.
According to a paper published last month, Chinese military researchers have expressed concern about the military threat posed by the Starlink constellation.
The paper reportedly highlights the need for China to develop counter measures to destroy the satellites in case they threaten the country’s national security.
‘A combination of soft and hard kill methods should be adopted to make some Starlink satellites lose their functionality and destroy the constellation’s operating system,’ read a translation of the paper published in China’s Modern Defence Technology journal.
The study was led by Ren Yuanzhen, a researcher with the Beijing Institute of Tracking and Telecommunications funded by the Chinese state.
The researchers noted that Starlink had strong links with the American military with funding from the US Air Force to test how well Starlink satellites could connect with military aircraft under encryption.
‘In May 2020, the US Army signed an agreement with SpaceX on the use of Starlink’s broadband to transmit data across military networks; in October 2020, SpaceX won a USD 150-million contract to develop military-use satellites; in March 2021, it announced its plan to work with the US Air Force to further test the Starlink Internet,’ said the paper.
As demonstrated by the war in Ukraine, Starlink satellites are able to provide vital infrastructure for communication during wartime.
Starlink undoubtedly gives whichever side that has it an advantage from space and unlike traditional telecommunications infrastructure like relay stations and undersea cables, Starlink satellites are more difficult to disable.
In April, Russia even tried to disable Starlink with an electromagnetic attack and failed spectacularly.
While China already has methods for disabling traditional satellites using microwave jammers, targeted lasers and ballistic missiles, the paper notes that the Starlink constellation ‘is not about individual satellites, but the whole system’.
‘This requires some low-cost, high-efficiency measures,’ wrote the researcers.
Starlink plans to create a 42,000-strong constellation of satellites of which there are now more than 2,300 active satellites in orbit. That’s far too many to target individually.
China is planning to counter the threat posed by Starlink’s capabilities by building a rival network.
In 2020, China announced a plan to develop a constellation of at least 10,000 satellites in low-Earth orbit called StarNet. The project is due to be deployed over the next decade according to an Asia Times report that cites a publication run by the official China News Service.
StarNet could be China’s answer to rival space infrastructure with anti-satellite capabilities, including a surveillance system to track and monitor every Starlink satellite.
This is hardly the first time Musk has been in China’s bad books. Last year, the billionaire’s SpaceX satellites were heavily criticised on Chinese social media after two nearly crashed into a Chinese space station.