From Ukraine to Taiwan, satellite firms wrangle with geopolitics in space

Analysts, defence and tech experts say that has supercharged an already growing international appetite for alternative secure satellite communications

Peter AppsPeter Apps
Published : 5 Oct 2023, 06:42 AM
Updated : 5 Oct 2023, 06:42 AM

If China attempts to cut Taiwan off from the world by severing more than a dozen undersea cables that connect it to the internet, large numbers of fast-moving low Earth orbit satellites will be critical to maintaining communications.

In June, Taiwan Minister of Digital Affairs Audrey Tang made a rare trip to Europe, meeting with British satellite provider OneWeb, a fast-growing rival to Elon Musk's Starlink that already has several hundred satellites delivering services to government and private clients.

Tang also visited Luxembourg-based satellite communications firm SES, which said afterwards it was working with Taiwan and Microsoft to be able to rebuild 5G networks in Taiwan rapidly in a “disaster scenario”.

Following Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Starlink satellites were reported to have been critical to maintaining internet connectivity in some areas despite attempted Russian jamming. But Musk has since said he declined to extend coverage over Russian-occupied Crimea, refusing to allow his satellites to be used for Ukrainian attacks on Russian forces there.

Analysts, defence and tech experts say that has supercharged an already growing international appetite for alternative secure satellite communications, particularly from governments that worry they might find themselves in conflict.

For satellite firms and others operating in space, the geopolitical tensions of the 2020s have produced a world very different to that most planned for earlier in the century. Then, many assumed globalisation would continue largely without challenge, prompting them to rely heavily on Chinese and Taiwanese components while turning to Russia to launch them into orbit.

Following the invasion of Ukraine, such options no longer feel so practicable. In February 2022, OneWeb had 36 satellites ready for imminent deployment from Russia’s cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan. As Western states imposed sanctions on the Kremlin, Russian authorities refused to launch them into orbit unless the UK government gave up its stake in OneWeb – a demand that was refused.

In the words of the firm’s management, it was the second unpredicted “Black Swan” challenge it had faced in little more than two years – the company had been forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in late 2020 as a result of COVID’s impact on a major shareholder. The firm has since recapitalised itself with support from investors, particularly in the UK, India and Europe.

"To say it has been a rollercoaster would be an understatement," said Chris Moore, a former senior Royal Air Force officer now vice president for defence and security at the company.

Nevertheless, the more divided world has been something of an opportunity for OneWeb and others delivering secure satellite communications – particularly with governments now seen more reluctant to rely on Starlink and the sometimes unpredictable Musk.

NEW LAUNCHERS, SECURITY CAVEATS

While Taiwan has talked of launching its own satellite constellations to ensure communications, experts say the capacity of its space industry to do so remains limited. Taiwan is itself a major producer of components for the global space sector – including SpaceX – but the dependence of Musk’s Tesla electric car business on manufacturing and sales in China was already seen pushing Taipei away from depending on Starlink even before Musk’s comments on Ukraine.

Operators say the capacity of new satellite firms like OneWeb – which completed a merger last week with French operator Eutelsat – is being bought up often before it even comes online, with users ranging from airlines and cruise firms wanting internet access in remote areas of the world to governments demanding secure and reliable communications.

Private sector clients too are increasingly building more resilience into their systems, including acquiring ground-based stations that will allow them to shift between different satellites and operators if they need to – perhaps because of jamming or attacks on satellites.

OneWeb will not comment on whether it is now providing services to Kyiv or anyone else within Ukraine – but Taiwan media say government officials there have engaged directly with the firm, which they expect to be able to cover the entire island by the end of 2023.

In March, Taiwan reported that two undersea cables to some of its outlying islands appeared to have been cut, although it stopped short of blaming Beijing. Taiwan media reported mounting interest in securing satellite internet connectivity immediately afterwards. Such geopolitical tensions are increasingly driving choices in the sector.

After the Ukraine invasion, OneWeb says it concluded it would not be able to extract its satellites from the Russian-operated cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, instead cutting deals with both the Indian Space Research Organisation and Musk’s SpaceX to launch replacement versions. OneWeb’s Moore says that having previously been entirely reliant on Russia’s Soyuz engine as a launch partner, it now intends to continue diversifying further.

RACE FOR LAUNCHES

Global satellite launch capacity is currently being pushed to its limits – in part as a consequence of Amazon’s “Project Kuiper", reported to have struck dozens of deals to build out the firm’s own internet satellite constellation projected to cover much of the globe by 2029.

As well as fighting for launch slots, space and other high-tech firms are now also reworking their supply chains to diversify manufacturing, reducing the risks of some dramatic disruption.

OneWeb now has its entire first generation of more than 600 satellites in low Earth orbit, although it is still rolling out its network of base stations around the world – each of which requires a separate set of negotiations with host governments.

Britain's “special share” in OneWeb allows it to impose national security restrictions on its operations, including a ban on base stations in certain countries, although it will not name them.

The merger with Eutelsat will allow the combined firm to offer services with both the geostationary satellites already operated by the French firm – which sit in a high orbit above a particular location on Earth – as well as OneWeb’s lower-orbiting platforms, which are each around the size of a washing machine and move at approximately 27,000 km/h.

"It's difficult to jam because it's moving so quickly, and you have multiple satellites in view at any one time," says OneWeb's Moore.

"Each satellite also has multiple beams. We designed them this way for business purposes, but it makes them inherently very difficult to jam and disrupt. And because we have 634 in orbit, disrupting several satellites doesn't get you very far."

The firm already has some spare satellites in orbit to replace any that cease functioning or are out of service, he said, and is also set up to launch and manufacture more if needed.

Attacks on space infrastructure do not only take place in space. Hours before Russia invaded Ukraine, US satellite firm Viasat came under concerted cyberattack in what tech experts described as the largest hack of the initial war, destroying multiple terminals, modems and routers, deleting data and knocking out multiple parts of Ukraine's communications systems.

"One of the lessons of Ukraine is that most nations – including their militaries – are now essentially dependent on commercial infrastructure in space," says Theodora Ogden, an analyst at RAND Corporation specialising in space.

"That brings a whole range of risks companies have to deal with."

* Peter Apps is a Reuters columnist writing on defence and security issues. He joined Reuters in 2003, reporting from southern Africa and Sri Lanka and on global defence issues. He has been a columnist since 2016. He is also the founder of a think-tank, the Project for Study of the 21st Century, and, since 2016, has been a Labour Party activist and British Army reservist.