Starlink satellites are boosting Air Force communication across the Indo-Pacific
Stars and Stripes March 21, 2023
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The Air Force is using commercial Starlink satellites to communicate with airmen dispersed across the vast Indo-Pacific, officials said this week at the home of U.S. Forces Japan.
The 730th Air Mobility Squadron showed off one of three recently acquired Starlink terminals during a visit Monday by the Air Force Expeditionary Center’s commander, Maj. Gen. John Klein.
Tech billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched nearly 4,000 Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit since 2019. Starlink provides highspeed internet to more than a million locations around the world, the company said on its website Feb. 26.
Starlink made its service available in Ukraine and shipped terminals to the country days after Russian forces invaded the nation last year, according to a March 16, 2022 report in The Mercury News.
A Starlink terminal set up inside a C-130J Super Hercules airlifter at Yokota allowed Klein to video conference with an airman who was using a Starlink terminal on Diego Garcia, an island more than 5,000 miles away in the Indian Ocean.
The system could be used by contingency response forces such as those who deployed to Afghanistan to evacuate U.S. troops and civilians in August 2021, Klein said after the demonstration.
“I was extremely impressed with the capability,” he told Stars and Stripes on Tuesday as he prepared to depart Yokota. “We are looking to give our units throughout the Pacific the ability to communicate with command-and-control entities. They are evolving to do that in support of agile combat employment.”
Agile combat employment is the ability to move aircraft rapidly to a network of smaller airfields. U.S. forces are honing agile combat employment skills in the Western Pacific to avoid being targeted by Chinese missiles in the event of war.
The Starlink systems cost $350 and deliver data at a rate of 120 megabytes per second under a subscription that costs $109 a month, Staff Sgt. Alejandro Flores, a client systems technician with the 730th, said after Monday’s demonstration.
Starlink works with the Air Force’s secure internet routers used for secret communication, he said.
The Air Force has its own satellite internet system called Hawkeye that’s a lot more expensive and slower, Flores added. A Hawkeye dish costs $250,000 and provides internet speeds of 4 megabytes per second, he said.
The downside of Starlink is that it is a commercial service and not controlled by the government, Flores said.
In September, Musk asked the Pentagon to fund Starlink services in Ukraine but later backtracked and said his company would continue providing the service for free, the BBC reported Oct. 15.
Starlink had become the connectivity backbone of Ukraine all the way up to the front lines, Musk tweeted on Feb. 1.
“This is the damned if you do part,” he wrote. “However, we are not allowing Starlink to be used for long-range drone strikes. This is the damned if you don't part."