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China must be prepared to destroy Elon Musk’s Starlink system, Chinese researchers say

Elon Musk meets with U.S. Air Force Academy Cadets (U.S. Air Force/Justin R. Pacheco)
May 25, 2022

Chinese military researchers are calling for their country’s military to develop ways to either counter or outright destroy the Starlink satellite internet service developed by Elon Musk.

In a paper published last month in the Chinese peer-reviewed journal Modern Defence Technology and reported by the South China Morning Post on Wednesday, lead researcher Ren Yuanzhen and his colleagues wrote 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.”

Ren is a researcher with the Beijing Institute of Tracking and Telecommunications, which is organized under the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) Strategic Support Force. According to the South China Morning Post, his coauthors included several other senior scientists in China’s defense industry.

Ren and his colleagues also wrote that the ion thrusters equipped on the Starlink systems allow them to quickly alter their orbits. The Chinese researchers wrote this could allow the satellites to be used as offensive weapons to ram into high-value targets in space.

The Chinese researchers wrote that China first needs to upgrade its existing space surveillance systems to be able to track Starlink satellites and identify any unusual features China could use to its advantage.

In terms of countering the Starlink satellites, the researchers noted China has developed missiles that are capable of destroying satellites in orbit, such as the one China used in 2007 to destroy one of its own defunct satellites. The researchers noted, however, that such anti-satellite missiles create a huge debris field in space and are too costly to use against Starlink’s system of more than 2,300 small and relatively low-cost satellites.

“The Starlink constellation constitutes a decentralized system,” the Chinese researchers wrote. “The confrontation is not about individual satellites, but the whole system. This requires some low-cost, high-efficiency measures.”

The push to find ways to counter Starlink comes after Musk activated the satellite internet service to help Ukraine maintain communications after Russia invaded the country in February. U.S. military officials have praised the satellite internet service, noting its ability to quickly deal with electronic warfare attacks from Russia.

Starlink could prove similarly valuable to Taiwan if China were to invade the island nation.

Starlink was also developed with the support of the U.S. Department of Defense and designed with the goal of being able to detect and track hypersonic weapons, which can travel at five times the speed of sound or faster. The ability to detect such weapons could also prove useful in countering China in a potential future conflict.

The South China Morning Post wrote that Ren and his colleagues could not immediately be reached for comment and it is unclear to what extent their paper represents the official views of the Chinese military.