• WASHINGTON POST

China’s Military Aims to Launch 13,000 Satellites to Rival Elon Musk’s Starlink

Chinese military researchers are calling for the rapid deployment of a national satellite network project to compete with SpaceX’s Starlink, over concerns that Elon Musk’s internet-beaming satellites pose a major national security threat to Beijing following their successful use in the Ukraine war.

Recent Chinese research papers and people familiar with the program say plans are underway to deploy a national mega-constellation of almost 13,000 low-orbit satellites, while military scientists are pursuing research on how to “suppress” or even damage Starlink satellites in wartime scenarios.

An opaque state-backed project – referred to in China’s satellite industry as “GW” or “Guowang,” which translates as “State Network” – first gained momentum in 2021 as a rival to the United States and other civilian internet satellite networks. But Chinese researchers in recent months have shared concerns in public research and privately with military officials that the project is lagging too far behind Starlink and should be fast-tracked after the SpaceX communications technology withstood practical tests in Ukraine.

“The Starlink constellation has finally shown its military colors in the Russia-Ukraine conflict,” said one Beijing academic familiar with the Chinese project.

“The focus now is to accelerate the development of China’s own constellation . . . and explore defensive measures against Starlink-type foreign satellites,” said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Chinese national security concerns over Starlink come amid an increasingly heated space race between Beijing and Washington, with both countries investing heavily in cutting-edge defensive technology and exploration missions – including competing efforts to put the first human on Mars.

Large low-earth internet satellite networks like Starlink and rival projects from Amazon and Boeing – which orbit between 300 and 1,200 miles above the Earth’s surface – are commercial ventures designed to provide broadband internet to areas that have low connectivity.

Musk’s SpaceX has more than 3,000 satellites currently in operation, with plans to eventually deploy about 42,000. The company has sent thousands of its Starlink terminals to Ukraine since the war began, and the service has become a critical tool for military communications.

But Starlink’s technological success on the battlefield has been dampened by its CEO’s political brinkmanship, including threats to stop providing communications services and a warning in February that Ukrainian troops were using the system for unauthorized offensive purposes. The company says its internet service was “never intended to be weaponized” and has taken steps to stop Ukraine from using it to power drones.

Over the past decade, the Pentagon has become increasingly reliant on the commercial space sector, using Musk’s reusable SpaceX launch vehicles to deploy top-secret defense satellites. In December, SpaceX announced an expansion of this work, unveiling a project called Starshield – separate from Starlink – that is oriented toward governments’ national security purposes. The announcement caused anxiety in Beijing, where researchers feared it could undermine the secrecy of China’s military programs.

“Once the Starshield is completed, it will be tantamount to installing networked surveillance cameras all over the world. At that time, military operations including the launch of ballistic missiles, hypersonic missiles and fighter jets will hardly escape the monitoring of the United States,” said researchers from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Space Engineering University in an article published on China’s official military news website in December.

SpaceX has not released any information suggesting the project will include these capabilities. Its public-facing website says the project will provide earth observation capabilities, communications and equipment to host unspecified payloads on its satellites.

SpaceX and the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

While there is no evidence that commercial networks like Starlink are currently being used for the advanced surveillance purposes claimed by Chinese academics, they have proved their potential on the battlefield. Services such as Starlink have the ability to provide cheap, portable high-speed internet communications where other infrastructure has failed.

Analysts say that – in concert with commercial satellite imagery services such as Planet Labs and Maxar – Starlink can give troops near-instant information about what’s happening on the battlefield.

Troops in Ukraine say they have used it to live-stream drone feeds and to improve the accuracy of artillery fire, saving them ammunition. It has also allowed soldiers to stay in contact with friends and family.

“Like it or not, [Musk] helped us survive the most critical moments of war,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in a tweet in October.

Meanwhile, China’s ambitions are hindered by technological hurdles and launch capacity. Researchers in Xian in central China last year conducted a successful test of a reusable rocket engine, but the technology lags behind SpaceX. A Chinese official told state media they expect to have their first reusable launch vehicle capable of taking off and landing vertically – similar to SpaceX rockets – by around 2025.

In 2021, Beijing announced a new firm, led by figures plucked from the country’s top state-owned aerospace groups, to oversee its low-earth orbit mega-constellation. The enterprise, called China Satellite Network Group Co. Ltd., is designed to consolidate early state and civilian satellite programs and speed up deployment of the national project, analysts and people familiar with the plans said.

A year earlier, China submitted a filing to the International Telecommunication Union – a U.N. agency responsible for setting standards in communication – outlining its intention to launch an initial 12,992 satellites on certain frequencies within an unspecified time frame.

It’s difficult to pinpoint how many satellites linked to the national project are currently in orbit because analysts say it’s likely that earlier efforts have been subsumed into the national plan, but various Chinese state and civilian programs have together launched a relatively small number – within the range of dozens. It’s also unlikely that they have the operational abilities of the newer models being deployed by Starlink.

But the Chinese trajectory is exponential.

“This year, there’s a fairly good chance China will launch a couple dozen low-earth orbit communications satellites. And next year they might launch a couple hundred,” said Blaine Curcio, founder of Orbital Gateway Consulting, which tracks the development of China’s satellite industry. “In five years, if you were to tell me that China has 2,000 low-earth orbit communications satellites in orbit, I would say that’s probably about the baseline.”

But China’s late entry to the market could also limit its access to open frequencies in low orbit. “In 2015 and 2016, when there was this kind of the low-earth orbit satellite spectrum gold rush, the Chinese just weren’t there,” Curcio said. “And so I think that’s going to be a hindrance to them. It creates a certain level of urgency.”

In a paper released in February, a research team at the PLA’s Space Engineering University accused the United States of seizing low-orbit resources, including frequencies, and said the rapid deployment of Starlink was a not just a commercial project, but a “competitive and strategic interest plan” by the U.S. government.

The researchers also described potential methods to disable Starlink satellites, should they be used in future U.S. military operations. “It is difficult to physically damage the Starlink constellation,” the article said, pointing to a potentially huge debris fields that an attack on satellites would create.

“Therefore, lasers, high-power microwaves . . . can be used to damage the reconnaissance payloads that may be carried by the Starlink satellites,” said the researchers, referring to what is known as “soft killing” a satellite by disabling its equipment without causing harmful debris. The Chinese military researchers also suggested “taking advantage” of potential weaknesses in Starlink’s internet services to conduct cyberattacks to “paralyze its communication network.”

The Beijing-based person familiar with the program said this sort of research is already “at a relatively sophisticated level. The bigger challenge is monitoring the operations of Starlink,” the person said. “The size of the constellation makes it difficult to understand its true purpose.”

While the program is relatively nascent, Beijing’s anxiety over Starlink offers insight into the tense China-U.S. space competition.

“If they’re talking about vulnerabilities of Starlink or Starshield, it’s because they know there are vulnerabilities that they’ve studied within their own systems,” said Martin Whelan, senior vice president of the Defense Systems Group at the Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded national nonprofit research and development center that provides analysis and technical expertise to U.S. space programs. “It does tell me, though, that they’re actively thinking about attacking a capability and denying a capability, which always makes our U.S. military nervous.”

Whelan said one of the biggest concerns in dealing with China’s growing space programs is its lack of communication. “The U.S. registers its satellites; the budgets are out there. You can read it all, but it’s less transparent on the Chinese side.”

It’s not the first time China has balked at the rapid deployment of Starlink satellites. In 2021, Beijing submitted a complaint to the United Nations, claiming it was forced to conduct evasive maneuvers on two occasions to avoid a collision between its space station and Starlink satellites, which led to fierce criticism of SpaceX and Elon Musk in China.

Musk is reportedly planning a visit to China this month to meet with top officials.