Elon Musk’s Satellites Will (Probably) Not Trigger a War in Space

Thomas Brown
7 min readApr 4, 2022

Over the last five years, Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, has put thousands of satellites into orbit — with the goal of creating a network of 42,000 — in order to give everyone on Earth high-speed, low-cost internet access. All anyone will need is a Starlink terminal. He claimed on Twitter in 2020 that there will be no training required: “Instructions are simply: — Plug in socket — Point at sky.”

Western pundits, journalists and tech enthusiasts have rushed to describe the social benefit they think Starlink will offer to disaffected people around the world: individuals in China will be able to freely skirt China’s great firewall to obtain information on politically censored topics, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests; Russians will be able to search for information that is unfavourable to Vladimir Putin or favourable to his opponents; protesters in India, Myanmar, Syria and elsewhere who want to communicate with each other won’t be shut down on the whim of those in power. As John Byrne, the director of telecom service at GlobalData, put it last year, “Satellite potentially turns the tables because the government doesn’t control space; as a result, the government has a much harder time regulating content over satellite.”

In addition, some have seen Starlink as a means for countries in the west to retaliate against cyberattacks. For example, analysts at the Rand Corporation have suggested that “Chinese cyber espionage … recent attacks on Hong Kong’s civil liberties, Russian attempts to influence Brexit or US elections … North Korean attacks on Sony [and] on South Korea’s ATM network are all activities ripe for response.” They claim that space-based broadband internet “outside of government control is both a challenge for authoritarian states and an opportunity for democracies.”

Starlink’s Troubled Image

Despite all these visions of Starlink’s potential impact, when Musk unveiled his plan in 2015, he acknowledged that the network’s coverage could be limited by political forces: “If they get upset with us, they can blow our satellites up, which wouldn’t be good … China can do that. So probably we shouldn’t broadcast there.”

But governments won’t have to blow anything up — in space or on the ground — to prevent their citizens from using Starlink. They have many other tools at their disposal. For example, they can simply refuse to give Starlink permission to operate in their…