Rendering of Starship conducting Starlink deployment — SpaceX
Elon Musk hates Putin with a passion. One of the primary motivators for developing and expanding SpaceX was to topple Putin’s monopoly on crewed space launches. Musk’s Starlink is also a crucial technology in empowering the Ukrainian forces to annihilate Putin’s pathetic ones. But Elon’s latest program, Starshield, promises to impact Russia far more than anything else he has done.
In March 2018, the US Space Development Agency (SDA) was formed. One of its missions was to develop missile defence systems that use low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. In October 2020, the SDA awarded SpaceX $150 million for a dual-use contract to develop a particular military version of the Starlink satellite to become a part of their new system known as the National Defense Space Architecture (NDSA). The NDSA will have seven layers: data transport, battle management, missile tracking, weapons targeting, navigation, deterrence, and ground support. SpaceX could, in theory, service all of these layers thanks to this dual-use contract.
This militarised version of Starlink, dubbed “Starshield” by Elon Musk, can function as a high-speed space-based communications system as well as carry additional payloads, allowing it to function as a highly flexible, highly detailed, and global earth observatory. Starshield satellites are based on V1.5 and V2.0 Starlink satellites, but they are larger and more powerful (with twice the solar cell area), which enables them to carry and power additional payloads. One such payload will be military imaging technology that will enable Starshield to identify and track objects of interest on the surface of Earth. So far, this is the only confirmed additional payload, though it is likely that the NDSA has other technologies in the works for these incredible missions.
The first of these Starshield satellites was supposed to launch in September 2022, but SpaceX struggled to source the electronics needed, causing delays. They are now expected to launch in mid-December 2022. These initial launches are more closely aligned with the US government (as it is they who are paying for the launch), but SpaceX has hinted that other governments, most likely those in NATO, could use them to avoid complications with their US funding. Therefore, the United States and its closest allies will soon have military communications and intelligence at an unprecedented level.
So, how will this impact Putin?
Well, Ukraine has shown us that Russian soldiers are uncoordinated, untrained, ineffective, and all-around terrible. This means that if NATO and Russian troops came to blows, it wouldn’t be a competition. We would win, hands down. But when it comes to heavy weapons, Russia has the upper hand. They have hypersonic missiles purposely designed to evade US defences and cause damage deep behind US lines. They achieve this by being so fast that our anti-missile defence systems can’t react quickly enough to block them. What’s worse, these missiles can carry conventional or nuclear warheads. This means that the reality of a hypothetical NATO-Russian conflict is far more evenly matched, which has caused NATO to be concerned about Putin’s ability to wield such a lethal weapon, and as a result, it struggles to take strong stances against him.
But Starshield can patch this hole in our defence systems and, in turn, bolster NATO’s ability to stand in defiance of Putin. Its highly sensitive and wide-reaching Earth observation ability allows it to identify and track these hypersonic missiles. Then, using its ultra-high-speed communications, Starshield can alert our defence systems, giving them an early warning and enough time to react and neutralise the threat.
In other words, Starshield will soon make one of Putin’s most potent weapons far less threatening and even offer NATO the upper hand.
As with all military satellites, we don’t know much else beyond this. In all likelihood, these “additional payloads” will give Starshield far more capabilities than SpaceX or the NDSA are letting on. After all, you wouldn’t want to show all your cards, would you? But either way, SpaceX’s Starshield is yet another thorn in Putin’s side and will dramatically strengthen the West’s defences against Sad Vlad and his tyrannical tantrums.