Starlink’s survivability in war a good sign for DoD’s future constellation

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SDA Director Derek Tournear said Starlink's performance so far speaks to the power of a proliferated constellation to deter attacks and provide resilience

WASHINGTON — Russian officials have made veiled threats to obliterate SpaceX’s internet satellite network which has served as a communications lifeline for the Ukrainian military.

To date, however, “how many Starlink satellites have the Russians shot down? … zero,” noted Derek Tournear, director of the U.S. Space Force’s Space Development Agency. 

Although Russia in November demonstrated it can strike a satellite in low Earth orbit with a ballistic missile, the fact that it hasn’t taken down any Starlink satellites speaks to the power of a proliferated constellation to deter attacks and provide resilience, Tournear said Oct. 25 at a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event in Arlington, Virginia.

The performance of SpaceX’s 3,500-plus satellite network during an armed conflict is encouraging to the Space Development Agency (SDA) which plans to spend billions of dollars over the next several years to deploy a low Earth orbit network of hundreds of data transport and missile-tracking satellites to support U.S. military operations. 

“There’s obviously operational resilience through proliferation,” Tournear said. Even if the SDA network came under attack, “we expect to be able to absorb a certain amount of attrition.”

“How much attrition? If you look at the math really quickly, as a rule of thumb, our satellites will have five-year lifetimes. So that means you’re going to be roughly replacing 20% of your satellites a year,” he explained. ‘“We do it in chunks so you kind of expect that level of attrition to be able to operate through without any degradation of capabilities once you’re fully operational.”

As DoD looks at future scenarios when satellites could be targeted, “what we base the resiliency off of is proliferation,” Tournear said. 

Earlier this year, Chinese and other media reported that China’s military views Starlink as a threat and plans to develop capabilities to destroy or disable the network.  

Electronic jamming is one of the tactics that Russia has used to disrupt Starlink service, according to Elon Musk who tweeted that the network faces “relentless jamming” but efforts have been unsuccessful so far. 

Tournear noted that China saw the benefits of proliferated space LEO systems long before the Ukraine conflict and even long before SDA started building DoD’s constellation. 

“If you look at China’s space architecture, they clearly have embraced those pillars of proliferation and spiral development before we have, and that’s kind of their model going forward,” Tournear said. “I’m not going to comment on whether they have better or worse capabilities than we do, but I will say it’s clear that they’re following more of the proliferation and more of the faster development timelines than the U.S. has historically done.”