In June, 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 other 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.
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 capabilities with planned capabilities and possible developments. Some of the points the authors make are true today, especially the role a global high-speed low-latency satellite network could play in warfare. Other threats are not directly concerning the existing Starlink constellation but concern military satellites launched by SpaceX that would potentially inter-operate with Starlink, e.g. vehicles with robotic arms. On the other hand: If you are willing to sacrifice one of your 30,000 Starlink satellites you don't really need the arm.
The sensing and targeting capabilities of existing plain vanilla Starlink satellites are unclear to me. I'm especially curious about threat 3a, 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.
Specifically for missile tracking though — certainly a demanding task —, the U.S. military has commissioned four dedicated military satellites based on the existing Starlink platform.
The latter actually is a meta threat not mentioned in the article: The Starlink satellites can be seen as a low-cost satellite development platform — the spaceberry, if you want. Pair this with the enormous, cheap-ish launch capacities of SpaceX and you have the possibility to develop and deploy new, adapted military satellite constellations quickly and for a fraction of the previous cost.
1 The original study is here. 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.