SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has won some fame for providing Starlink internet services to Ukraine. Plans are underway to give the same access to the orbiting communications constellation to dissidents currently protesting the theocratic regime in Iran. Despite Musk starting a dustup over who should ultimately pay for those services, the point is that a space-based telecommunication service, like Starlink, is a crucial weapon in the war against tyranny.
It’s time for the United States to use the power of Starlink to deliver space-based information to anywhere on Earth to extend its reach to Russia. No technology has greater power to not only end Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine but to end his tyrannical and ruinous rule.
The National Review recently published a lengthy proposal to bring pressure to bear against Putin’s Russia, using the same strategy that President Ronald Reagan employed to bring down the Soviet Union and win the Cold War.
It describes the information war noting, “To increase domestic pressure on Putin, the U.S. should launch a massive covert information campaign — targeting the Russian public via computer screens, television, radio and print — that makes the name of Alexei Navalny and other Russian dissidents known in every Russian home. It should also make every Russian aware of Putin’s hundreds of billions of dollars in pilfered wealth, and broadcast images of the tens of thousands of Russian men fleeing their country to evade the draft.”
During the depth of the Cold War, the West brought news and information to the Soviet bloc via short-wave radio transmitted by Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.
Starlink represents a quantum leap that could bring the truth of what Putin is doing to the Russian people. Almost as important, a Starlink-based information campaign could inform Russians who silently oppose Putin that they are not alone.
The biggest challenge to opening Russia to the Starlink network would be smuggling ground-receiving stations into the country. The FSB, the successor to the KGB, will likely be alert to anyone who possesses such an appliance. Fortunately, methods exist for concealing them.
The Russians would likely try to jam the signals coming from space. They might even try to destroy the Starlink satellites to prevent them from beaming the truth to Russians. In the event of this escalation, the United States Space Force should take countermeasures to prevent such an effort. SpaceX should be ready to rapidly replace Starlink satellites if they are taken out.
The financing of such a space-based information warfare effort needs to be decided in advance. In an apparent fit of public spiritedness, Musk offered Starlink services to Ukraine pro-bono, which has been operational since late February, shortly after Russia’s invasion. Despite many predictions at the time that the conflict would be short-lived, the war has dragged on for eight months. When Musk recently pointed out that the effort was imposing an immense burden on his bottom line and should not continue forever, the social media crowd descended on Musk with fury. Although he has decided to continue footing the bill for Ukraine’s access to the outside world, some arrangement should be made for others to take a share of the cost.
Similarly, an effort to get the truth into Russia via Starlink should be paid for by the United States, with the help of European allies, from the beginning.
Which entity should pay for an information war against Russia? The Pentagon? The CIA? Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty still exists and is supervised by the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM). It provides news to countries that lack a free press. The Starlink effort in Russia could be run under the USAGM. The effort could eventually be expanded to every country that restricts internet access to its citizens. China is one such country. Starlink could breach the Great Firewall of China and bring the outside world to that country.
Many people thought that the end of the Cold War meant that tyranny and oppression, at least on the part of great powers, had also ended. However, the United States and its allies find themselves involved in another long, twilight struggle with new tyrants who grind down their people for their own gain. Information warfare, bringing the raw, unvarnished truth to people who live under the boot of tyranny, is one way of waging that struggle. Thanks to Musk, the world has access to Starlink, which could prove a potent weapon in a new Cold War.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.