Space Force general: Commercial satellite internet in Ukraine showing power of megaconstellations

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A lesson from the Ukraine war is the resiliency provided by large proliferated constellations, said Gen. David Thompson

WASHINGTON — During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing May 11, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) asked Space Force officials if any lessons could be drawn from the war in Ukraine about the role of commercial satellites in armed conflicts. 

One lesson is the resiliency provided by large proliferated constellations, said Gen. David Thompson, vice chief of space operations of the U.S. Space Force.

Russia in a cyberattack in February managed to disrupt satcom services provided by a Viasat satellite. But SpaceX’s broadband constellation Starlink has continued to provide internet services in Ukraine despite attempts to disrupt it. According to Elon Musk, the Starlink network “has resisted Russian cyberwar jamming and hacking attempts so far, but they’re ramping up their efforts.”

At a hearing of the SASC strategic forces subcommittee, Cotton noted that most people expected Ukraine’s communications or internet access would be cut off in the first days or first hours of the war, “but that did not happen, and it still has not happened,” he said, and one reason for that is the availability of satellite based internet.

“What lessons have we learned about what we can do should we ever face a similar conflict with Russia and China, and they try to deny us that?” he asked Thompson, who testified at the hearing alongside Frank Calvelli, assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration; and John Plumb, assistant secretary of defense for space policy, cyber and missile defense.

In the case of Ukraine, Russia would have wanted to prevent Ukrainians from using space capabilities but their inability to do that is “a reflection of these new proliferated architectures that are very difficult to deny overall,” Thompson said. 

“You may be able to deny a piece of it, but you can’t eliminate the capability writ large,” he said. 

The capability shown by low Earth orbit commercial satcom in Ukraine validates the Space Force’s strategy to use a distributed architecture for  space based communications and data relay, Thompson said, “not only bringing in commercial capability but absolutely that proliferated architecture that makes a network that’s very difficult to defeat,” he added. “That is another element of what I think we’re learning.”