China’s PLA accuses US of ‘militarising space’ with Elon Musk’s Starshield satellite network

The official newspaper of China’s military has accused the United States of “militarising space” by building a sophisticated spy satellite network with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, causing “huge challenges” for information and space asset security of “other countries”.

The Starshield unit of the US entrepreneur’s space business is reportedly developing a constellation of hundreds of low-Earth orbit satellites that would allow the US government and military to “quickly spot potential targets almost anywhere on the globe”.

According to Reuters, Starshield and the National Reconnaissance Office, a Washington intelligence agency that manages spy satellites, signed a classified US$1.8 billion contract in 2021.

In the Ukraine and Gaza wars, advanced satellite internet and communication have provided military advantages, opening up a new arena for US-China tech rivalry.

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A commentary in military mouthpiece PLA Daily on Friday said such a network of satellites could potentially “warn and intercept missiles and control unmanned combat platforms remotely”, and could play “an extremely important role on the battlefield”.

The planned Starshield network “has not only upgraded its secure communication capabilities” from the Starlink satellite internet system, “but further expanded its Earth observation and payload capabilities”, the commentary said.

Satellites in low-Earth orbit – altitudes of 2,000km (1,200 miles) or less – provide better signals with shorter delays. Payloads such as transponders, imaging sensors, and space environmental monitors, can be attached to those satellites.

In the commentary, PLA Daily criticised the US for increasingly “militarising the transformation and development of low-orbit satellites” by cooperating with civilian and commercial entities, which it said “highlighted the US ambition to seize orbital resources and pursue space hegemony”.

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SpaceX and Indonesia launch satellite to boost high-speed internet coverage in the country

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The programme to engage Starshield for such military purposes also “posed huge challenges to information and space asset security to other countries”, the commentary said.

“In recent regional military conflicts, the United States has relied on its space military capabilities to intervene in other countries by providing information support through ‘non-combatant means’,” it said.

“This type of action has brought great challenges to maintaining regional peace and stability.”

SpaceX has been providing its civilian-focused Starlink satellite internet service to Ukraine since the early stages of the war. Since June 2023, the cost has been covered by Washington.

In February, Starlink was also given a licence to operate in Israel and parts of the Gaza Strip.

Chinese state-owned enterprises are developing rivals to Musk’s Starlink, such as the G60 Starlink and the Guo Wang project. In 2022, Beijing introduced a five-year space programme that included a goal to establish “satellite remote-sensing systems”.

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China is also vying to put satellites in very low-Earth orbit – altitudes under 300km – which costs less and can offer higher resolution images. But because such devices are closer to Earth, more satellites are needed to cover a specific area, making the network more complex.

The PLA has also been expanding its space warfare capabilities, which operate under the Strategic Support Force, established directly under the top Communist Party military apparatus in 2015.

It is tasked with overseeing the military’s space force and coordinating the uses of emerging civilian innovations for future “intelligence warfare”.

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