Why do the flaws in Elon Musk’s “essential” Starlink worry kyiv?

You are missing just one telecommunications network and an entire army is blinded… A few weeks after the Russian invasion of February 2022, SpaceX flooded Ukraine with Starlink terminals, in total more than 42,000 according to the New York Times, to ensure a seamless Internet connection for Ukrainian forces. The Ukrainian army has since relied heavily on this network, which operates using a constellation of low-altitude orbiting satellites. But on the morning of May 10, at the start of the Russian offensive on the Kharkiv region, the system apparently failed.

According to the commander of a drone unit stationed in the Kharkiv region and questioned by the Washington Post, Starlink communications were completely cut off. However, the network “is a key technology essential for the conduct of modern warfare”, reacts Johanna Möhring. In particular, it allows “the sharing of drone images in real time [ou la] communication in areas where fighting has interrupted mobile telephone services,” explains the researcher at the Center for Advanced Security, Strategic and Integration Studies (Cassis) at the University of Bonn.

An army without a “nervous system”

“If you no longer have a connection, it is much more complicated to act on the ground. It’s like the nervous system: you can have the best brain or the best muscles, if all that doesn’t communicate, nothing works,” illustrates Cédric Mas, military historian and conflict specialist. This is not the first time that kyiv has pointed the finger at Elon Musk’s communications network. “The Ukrainians have already complained about cuts during the battle of Bakhmout,” recalls Cédric Mas, who specifies, however, that these accusations must be taken with caution. Not only has SpaceX never confirmed them, but also “certain statements can actually serve as excuses because it is easier to accuse the tool” than its military strategy, slips the military historian.

Whether these allegations are founded or not, “Ukraine finds itself in a delicate situation” because it is “dependent on a foreign private company,” says Johanna Möhring. “We remember the worrying comments from Elon Musk in 2022 who said he wanted to cut off access to these services if Ukraine attacked targets in Russia,” she slips. In biography dedicated to the billionaire and released in September 2023the latter also assumed that he had secretly ordered his engineers to turn off Starlink in order to prevent an attack from kyiv on the Russian fleet.

Between black market and unpredictable billionaire

The position of the American billionaire has always been ambiguous. Last February, he estimated on the social network “no chance” that Vladimir Putin will lose the war. At the same time, Ukrainian intelligence accused him of having delivered the Starlink system to Moscow. Elon Musk denied this information and Kremlin spokesperson Dmitri Peskov responded cryptically that it was an “uncertified system” which was “not officially provided”. But for Johanna Möhring, “Russian forces obtained Starlink terminals on the black market and continue to buy them. » Moreover, “the Pentagon and SpaceX are currently trying to find solutions,” she assures.

“We have the image of a very corseted Russian army but the Russian soldiers also ask the population to support them by purchasing equipment. It is possible that units recovered Starlink terminals like that,” says Cédric Mas. Some were also recovered during the advance of Russian forces. The immense network, presented by the Ukrainian digital minister in July 2023 as “the blood that flows in our communications infrastructure”, to the New York Times, seems to be becoming a thorn in kyiv’s side. Or, at least, a threatening shadow which, according to Johanna Möhring, should “give arguments” to the European Union’s project “to invest in its own IRIS2 satellite system” for purposes of independence, particularly military.

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