Using Starlink Paints a Target on Ukrainian Troops
Units scramble for solutions as Russia learns to locate and jam the vital comsat links.
Operating behind enemy lines, one soldier fighting for Ukraine knows the Russians will hunt for him the second he sets up his portable Starlink internet dish.
He and his team set up the device only in urgent situations where they need to communicate with their headquarters. The Russians “will find you,” the soldier said, who goes by the call sign Boris. “You need to do it fast, then get out of there.”
The soldier, an ex-French Foreign Legionnaire who now operates as part of a reconnaissance-and-sabotage unit, is just one of Ukraine’s many soldiers for whom the Starlink service is a double-edged sword. Like other soldiers interviewed for this article, Boris asked to be referred by his call sign for security reasons.
On the one hand, Ukrainian soldiers say the device is key to their operations, notably its ability to help coordinate devastating artillery strikes. On the other, they report a variety of ways in which the Russians can locate, jam, and degrade the devices, which were never intended for battlefield use.
The end result is a MacGyver-esque arms race, as Ukraine rushes to innovate and Russia moves to overcome these innovations.
In Boris’s case, Russian signals-intelligence equipment is likely pinpointing the devices by scanning for suspect transmissions, said Todd Humphreys, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied Starlink devices.
One Ukrainian drone operator with the call sign of “Professor” also reported prolonged jamming that prevented his team from using his Starlink unit.
Professor said the jamming began two to three months ago, and that its intensity varied from place to place. “In one place everything’s fine, and in another—it doesn’t work,” Professor said.
At times the jamming would continue all day. “It’s really powerful,” Professor said.
Sometimes if there is no signal for the Starlink, the drone operator Professor tries a novel solution: he places it in a hole. The signal then returns, although only sometimes.
That should help keep the Starlink up through Russian GPS jamming, said Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and an expert in electronic warfare.
Starlinks are particularly vulnerable to such jamming. Each terminal uses a GPS unit to determine which passing satellite should provide an internet connection.
Fortunately for Ukraine, GPS jammer signals are low power. This means that dirt or concrete can block the jammer signal. As long as a Starlink device has a barrier between it and the Russian jamming signal, it can continue to function, according to Clark.
A drone pilot with the call sign of Morgenshtern says he’s seen similar problems with other gear that uses GPS. “I think they introduced some more advanced equipment, or just their number increased,” he said.
Clark added that Ukraine can’t put its drones in a hole to protect them from jamming by Russia’s own Orlan-10 drones, but there may be other ways.
As Starlink allows users to manually enter their GPS locations, users could simply place a cheap GPS-receiver device outside jamming range and then enter its location into their Starlink terminal, offset by their distance to the GPS receiver.
One drone unit commander near the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut said his problems were unrelated to GPS jamming. Sometime in January, the commander said, Starlink uplink had been degraded to the point that his units often couldn’t make audio calls. Instead, the device could only send and receive text messages. The Starlink terminal also took longer to find satellites.
Clark said these problems were likely due to advanced jamming systems that attack the uplink of information to a satellite. The Russian military typically keeps these systems in reserve to defend Russian territory itself. They are theoretically vulnerable to Ukrainian strikes as they must be deployed within dozens of kilometers from their target and are not highly mobile.
That Russia might move such valuable systems to Bakhmut aligns with reports that more professional forces are deploying to take the city, which it has been attempting to occupy for seven months and now partly encircles. When visited by this reporter in Bakhmut on Feb. 14, a drone soldier with the call-sign Lebed reported that Russia was sending more professional soldiers to attack Ukrainian positions.
On March 10, Ukrainian Presidential Advisor Mykailo Podoloyak told the Italian newspaper La Stampa that Russia has “converged on Bakhmut with a large part of its trained military personnel.”
Clark said Russian satellite jamming is also defeatable with adjustments to Starlink’s software. In March 2022, Starlink engineers quickly pushed through a code update in response to Russian jamming attempts, a U.S. official said that April.
For now, Ukraine is stuck with Starlink and its problems, Clark said. Other satellite internet companies, such as Astranis, lack the infrastructure to provide continuous coverage, while satellite phone systems have too little bandwidth for Ukraine’s needs, he said.
It isn’t all bad news for Ukraine, though.
Two officers responsible for drone operations reported no issues with jamming. Similarly, neither Professor nor Morgenshtern said they were currently seeing Starlink jamming.
It’s unclear why jamming would have subsided for these units.
Russian forces could be rotating jamming operations across the front, focusing on high-priority areas. Ukraine may also be targeting Russian electronic-warfare units. Ukraine regularly shoots down Russia’s Orlan drones, for example, which can carry electronic-warfare payloads.
In keeping with Ukraine’s often innovative approach to the war, some drone operators are even reselling crashed parts of these Orlan drones. On one website for Ukrainian drone operators, one user posted an image of the Orlan camera, offered for sale.
NEXT STORY: F-35 Sales Rise as Russian Invasion Grinds On