None of the publicly available articles and studies mention satellites as kinetic weapons. Instead, they focus on StarLink's and, broader, SpaceX's core capabilities: The three Cs (control, command and communication) for StarLink proper, and the capabilities of SpaceX as a high-tech company and launch provider to bring dedicated military satellites into space. Military satellites developed and deployed by SpaceX could profit from an integration into the existing StarLink constellation for communication and control purposes.
SpaceX has recently (12/2022) announced an official military services arm, and there is a Chinese study proposal providing a foreign angle on the subject, however broad. I'll first present both and then end with an assessment.
In December 2022, SpaceX announced StarShield which aims at providing a "secured satellite network for government entities". Many of the advertised services exploit SpaceX's existing technological and launch infrastructure for special payloads. The advertised general communication and control functions, on the other hand, could be performed by the existing StarLink constellation, as demonstrated in the Ukraine war.
Chinese Research Proposal
In June 2022, a Chinese research group led by Ren Yuan-zhen published a study1 — or rather: a study proposal — about strategic risks posed by Starlink as perceived from a mainland Chinese perspective. They identified a number of strategic threats. I'm paraphrasing the Chinese paper piped through google translate and add a minimal assessment after that. I'm looking forward to comments regarding the details.
Summary of the threats outlined in the Chinese paper
1. Global, continuous, no-dead-zone broadband capacity
- More stable and reliable communication capabilities for combat units. The improved real-time communication between units and command and control improves what may be referred to as C4ISR, that is, the traditional Command and Control plus communication, plus information acquisition and processing.
- High-definition pictures and live video, as demonstrated by military tests with C-12 military reconnaissance aircraft. The achieved data rate of around 600 MBit/s is a jump by two orders of magnitude.
Obviously, better real-time information and control capabilities will enhance the battlefield capabilities.
2. Continuous surveillance capability
This includes the capability to track moving ground targets.
3a. Sensing, detecting, tracking, targeting
Starlink satellites are able to detect and track satellites as well as other objects in space. The Starlink constellation is to become part of the "next-generation [U.S.] defense space architecture".
3b. "Target suppression"
Potentially equipped with robotic arms, the maneuverable Starlink satellites could be used to dispose targets.
Starlink could become part of a "mosaic warfare" concept: A variety of more autonomous, smaller, potentially unmanned assets are deployed as required by the developing situation which is monitored in real-time. In this scenario, with its high communication load and control flexibility, Starlink plays a communication and reconnaissance role.
Assessment of the Chinese paper
As mentioned in the beginning, the study focuses on the core Starlink function, communication. The gist of my question, which aimed more at unexpected uses, is only addressed cursorily ("target suppression") as a future option. Additionally, the military use for reconnaissance/sensing/targeting can be considered a "lateral" use of the original Starlink capabilities.
The article mixes existing with planned capabilities and possible developments, and it is not always clear whether they refer to StarLink or military spacecraft integrated with StarLink.
The sensing and targeting capabilities of existing plain vanilla Starlink satellites are unclear to me. I'm especially curious about threat 3a in the paper, detecting and tracking of other satellites. Because of the ability to communicate with each other via laser which needs precise aiming, some tracking of other Starlink satellites must be built-in to newer plain vanilla Starlink satellites.
It is remarkable how well this article predicts the StarShield outline: Not just StarLink but the entire technological and launch infrastructure that SpaceX provides, including StarLink as one building block, are a military game changer.
- Using StarLink satellites as actual kinetic weapons is never considered.
- That StarLink, a global, low-latency communications network, is of military importance is not surprising. More interesting is its role as one puzzle piece in a "mosaic" warfare of drones, space war and surveillance, conducted by specialized military satellites using the constellation's capabilities as an integral design part. Others mention that thousands of cheap satellites, as opposed to only a few expensive military ones, are much more robust.
- Interesting is also the strategic importance of the entire company SpaceX as a high-tech and launch asset which can facilitate this "mosaic".
- The affordable satellite platform and ability for high-cadence, low-cost launches constitutes a meta threat not mentioned in the article: The Starlink satellites are to conventional military satellites what the Raspberry Pi is to a PC. It is a spaceberry, if you want.
1 The original study is here (archive.org link for posterity). An English translation (perhaps mechanical) can be found in this blog, about halfway down, Ctrl-F "Modern Defense Technology Volume 50, Issue 2, 2022".
It received fairly wide media coverage, for example at businessinsider.