China Threat Forces Japan To Test Starlink Satellite That Played A Critical Role To Keep Ukraine Connected

The Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF), which has embarked on a massive military modernization, is currently testing Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite network, one year after Ukraine began using it amidst an unprecedented Russian invasion.

The news was first published by the Japanese newspaper The Yomiuri Shimbun, which also stated that the deployment of the SpaceX Starlink technology would add a constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, in addition to the communication satellites in geostationary orbit that are already available to the Japanese Ministry of Defense.

Sources accessed by the publication reportedly revealed that the SDF has been conducting trials of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellations since March this year.

The Air, Ground, and Maritime SDF will be outfitted with Starlink antennas and other communication tools based on an agreement signed between Japan’s Defense Ministry with an agent of SpaceX, which operates Starlink. The SDF has been using the service at roughly ten different sites, including bases and camps, to check for any operational issues.

Currently, the ministry has two of its own X-band communication satellites in geostationary orbit about 36,000 kilometers above Earth for use by the SDF. With Starlink’s trial run, this is the first time the SDF is using a low-orbit satellite constellation.

According to the Japanese media, an agreement with another company that provides a similar service is also in the works and would likely be concluded during the current fiscal year. However, the country could start using the high-speed Starlink communication network in the next fiscal year.

The Japanese Defense Ministry intends to improve the SDF’s communication infrastructure as China and Russia step up efforts to bolster their anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities. Both countries have often been accused of carrying out dangerous ASAT tests, putting satellites in space at risk.

Besides the US-based military satellites, the SDF is also exploring options from other states. The decision comes when Japan has embarked on a military modernization journey to combat the threat posed by its three adversaries – China, North Korea, and Russia.

Japanese military believes that China and Russia possess ground-based jammers that they reportedly have used on other countries’ satellites. In the event of a contingency, communication satellites being attacked and going haywire could put SDF units in a paralyzing predicament.

However, satellite constellations comprise many satellites, so even if some are destroyed, they can still function and keep communication up and running.

China is also making concerted efforts to create a satellite-powered internet network that can compete with Elon Musk’s Starlink. China originally intended to launch two LEO internet service constellations, but they were scrapped in favor of GuoWang, which could be launched in the near future.

Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite constellation network has gained popularity as it has kept Ukraine’s communication network functional for over a year since the war started. Impressed by its deployment, even Taiwan is working on a similar satellite, with the Chinese invasion threat looming large.

Starlink’s Use In Ukraine

The report about Japan’s testing of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite network comes days after reports indicated that Pentagon had agreed to purchase Starlink satellite internet terminals from SpaceX for use in Ukraine.

“We continue to work with a range of global partners to ensure Ukraine has the satellite and communication capabilities they need. Satellite communications constitute a vital layer in Ukraine’s overall communications network, and the department contracts with Starlink for services of this type,” the Pentagon said.

A few days into the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Mykhailo Fedorov, the Ukrainian minister of digital transformation, tweeted to Elon Musk requesting Starlink services to the nation to provide steady communication for citizens and the government as the conflict began.

After Fedorov made his request, Musk responded on social media within a day, stating that “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine.”

Fedorov’s request was made during a period of widespread internet outages in the nation as Russia targeted the communication infrastructure as part of its special military operation. Since modern battlefields are based on internet connectivity, aggressors look to obliterate these systems to cripple the warfighting capability of their opponents.

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In Ukraine, it only took SpaceX a few hours to start the service and two days for new terminals to be shipped to Ukraine for improved and scaled connectivity. Since it was activated, civilian and military authorities have used SpaceX’s service.

Several media reports over the months have suggested that the Ukrainian military started exploiting the technology inventively on the battlefield as it quickly became a part of the nation’s communications infrastructure, such as by using it to manage surveillance and reconnaissance drones as well as unmanned combat drones.

While Elon Musk and Ukrainian officials have often gotten into arguments and controversies over these satellite networks’ use, Starlink in Ukraine has undoubtedly highlighted the importance of such technology in modern battlefields.

With Japan’s military modernization in full swing, Starlink’s deployment may not surprise anyone, including Tokyo’s regional rivals.