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Elon Musk and the Ukraine War

The next season of "Space Time" with space expert Professor Ulrich Walter begins on WELT Fernsehen in October.

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Elon Musk and the Ukraine War

The next season of "Space Time" with space expert Professor Ulrich Walter begins on WELT Fernsehen in October. In the first episode he deals with the military use of space - a very topical issue in view of the Ukraine war. In an interview, he explains the immense importance of fast communication satellites. Also in the WELT news channel he currently explains why Starlink is "invulnerable".

WORLD: The then head of the Russian space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, threatened SpaceX boss Elon Musk via Twitter that he would have to answer "like an adult" for supporting the Ukrainian military with satellite communications. Musk responded with a joke: "If I should die under mysterious circumstances - it was good to have known you." What role does Elon Musk's space technology actually play in the Ukraine war?

Ulrich Walter: One that should not be underestimated. Elon Musk has enabled the Ukrainian military to use its Starlink satellites for real-time communications. As a result, the efficiency of the Ukrainian infantry has increased by around 300 percent. That explains the gigantic losses of the Russian tanks.

WORLD: It's about the precise reconnaissance of where enemy units are located in order to then be able to attack them in a targeted manner?

Walter: Knowing exactly where an opponent's position is at that moment is one thing. But in half an hour, mobile units and tanks can be somewhere else. It is therefore important to get artillery rockets to the target quickly enough - to hit them while the information about the enemy's location is still fresh. For this to work, you need real-time communication – and Starlink satellites make that possible. Fast communication is at least as important for military success as reconnaissance. The enemy positions are first probed with a reconnaissance drone. These drones report the relevant position data to a control center. Via the Starlink satellites, the information is instantly relayed to all of your own artillery rocket launchers and howitzers - their locations are widely dispersed these days and are often changed to make return fire more difficult. Within seconds, the rockets are reprogrammed and launched as quickly as possible. It takes a maximum of minutes from recognizing an enemy position to destroying it. We now have a real-time war that is only possible with the help of communications satellites. This decisively changed the course of the war.

WORLD: So the positions are primarily reconnaissance with drones and not with satellites in space?

Walter: That's right. The military spy satellites are well suited to providing large situational awareness - where troops are being relocated or repositioned. But they don't fly over a particular region frequently enough to provide real-time information. The era of the few large, military reconnaissance satellites is over. As with communication, the trend in reconnaissance is towards a swarm of low-flying earth observation satellites. And they are no longer run by states, but by private companies.

WORLD: So not only information from drones, but also from earth observation satellites is used to obtain information about the position of enemy positions?

Walter: Yes. But because the satellites only fly over a certain region every few hours, they provide good situational pictures, but no real-time information. They can provide important clues as to where to send a reconnaissance drone. The combination of these possibilities, fast, large-scale reconnaissance from space, powerful drones with a large operating range and real-time communication via satellite, that is what makes the new way of warfare. By the way, Elon Musk gave Ukraine the receiving dishes for Starlink. They are very easy to use and can be assembled and disassembled in no time at all. The Ukrainian military uses them and it works very well.

WORLD: These successes also require the availability of precision weapons.

WALTER: That is correct. Artillery can now use missiles equipped with infrared sensors that hit the entered target at a distance of 80 kilometers with an accuracy of 20 meters. That's why you don't really need bombers anymore. In any case, none are used in the Ukraine war.

WORLD: Could it be that the Russian generals didn't really have the new possibilities of precision warfare with real-time communication on their screens, so underestimated them?

Walter: I assume so. There is no other way to explain the massive losses suffered by the Russian army in recent weeks.

WORLD: If the military use of Starlink is so efficient, would the Bundeswehr also use these satellites in an emergency?

Walter: No. According to my information, using Starlink is out of the question for them because the Bundeswehr's exclusive data encryption system is not compatible with Starlink. At best, it could be used unencrypted for non-security-critical support communication with soldiers in operations. But I am pretty sure that the US armed forces can use Starlink in a security-critical manner, so there is an agreement with Elon Musk that allows US encryption on the system. But the US doesn't want everyone to use Starlink for military purposes. Even other NATO members cannot use Starlink with encryption.

WORLD: The Ukrainian military also uses the Starlink satellites unencrypted and is successful with it. Or how does that work?

Walter: Yes, they use Starlink unencrypted. But because the connection goes directly from a parabolic antenna to the satellite, this data traffic cannot be disrupted or eavesdropped on by the adversary. However, in a few years the technology will probably be so advanced that this security will no longer exist. The Bundeswehr does not want to get involved in such an uncertain perspective.

WORLD: But the Bundeswehr also has its own communication satellites?

Walter: Yes, it has two communications satellites: Comsat-BW 1 and 2. They are in geostationary orbit, ie 36,000 kilometers above the equator. You can't really do real-time communication with it. In addition, satellites in geostationary orbit can be easily switched off in an emergency. The Russians have the so-called Luch (Olymp-K) satellite there, which the West regards as a killer satellite. It would be easy for him to approach and destroy the unarmed Bundeswehr satellites.

WORLD: How would the killer satellite do that?

Walter: With an intense beam of laser light, for example. And that's just not possible with Starlink satellites. On the one hand, they fly much lower and therefore faster, so that a killer satellite cannot approach them slowly and easily, as is the case in geostationary orbit. And even if a killer satellite knocked out one or even ten of these low-flying satellites, what does it matter if there are 2,500 in orbit now and 12,000 in the future? This is a big advantage of Starlink.

WORLD: And how does the Bundeswehr want to get out of this dilemma – its own satellites are very vulnerable and Starlink cannot be used safely?

Walter: Germany or Europe needs its own encrypted real-time communication system. Just as the European Galileo satellites are already an alternative to the American navigation system GPS, we also need satellite communication technology that is independent of the USA. In fact, in February 2022, the EU presented a plan for such a satellite system.

WORLD: So the EU wants to build its own “Starlink” for military use?

Walter: That's right.

WORLD: How important are the classic reconnaissance satellites today?

Walter: An ever smaller one. They are hardly ever built anymore, the last one as far as I know was in 2005. During the Cold War, the famous keyhole satellites weighing ten tons eyed potential adversaries. These were gigantic optical telescopes in low orbit—ten billion dollars at a price with a lifespan of only two years. Today, the military prefers to invest in images from commercial companies and invest in their own radar satellites, which can also see at night and through clouds.

WORLD: Private companies apparently now play a central role in the military communication and reconnaissance that fell over the satellites. But what about weapon systems stationed in space?

Walter: Apart from the killer satellites mentioned, there are no weapon systems in space - they are all down here on Earth. It is a common misconception that it would be worth stationing weapons for Earth in space. But that will never happen, because you would first have to get the rockets or bombs through the atmosphere without them burning up. And the accuracy of a weapon from space can never be as good as on Earth. We talked about precision weapons that can hit a target 80 kilometers away to within 20 meters. A bomb falling from space could never be so precise.

WORLD: Maybe a laser cannon in orbit aimed at a target on the ground?

Walter: No, not that either. Due to the refraction of the laser light in the atmosphere, it would not be possible to hit the target precisely.

WORLD: But destroying other satellites with laser light is possible. You said so yourself.

Walter: Right, the laser light doesn't have to go through the earth's atmosphere for that. But this works most easily with geostationary satellites and only with great difficulty with near-Earth satellites.

WORLD: The Bundeswehr has founded a space command. What do you need that for?

Walter: For example, to observe Russian killer satellites and see whether they are approaching a Bundeswehr satellite.

Ulrich Walter was born in Iserlohn in 1954. In 1974 he began his physics studies at the University of Cologne and received his doctorate in 1985. After research stays in the USA, he became a scientific astronaut and flew into space on the "D2" mission in 1993 on board the "Columbia" shuttle. Today, Walter is a professor of space technology at the Technical University of Munich.

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