Pentagon Leaks: The Russians Attacked Musk's Satellite Communications in Ukraine with Tobol-1

Ukraine | April 19, 2023, Wednesday // 11:40|  views

Russia's drive to sabotage Ukrainian forces' Internet access by targeting Starlink satellite communications provided by billionaire Elon Musk to Kyiv appears to be more advanced than previously known, a classified US intelligence report leaked alongside the affair "Pentagon leaks," writes The Washington Post, which obtained the report.

According to the document, which is marked "top secret", for months Moscow has been experimenting with its Tobol electronic warfare systems to disrupt Starlink communications in Ukraine. The report is among the sensitive material leaked via the Discord messaging platform and is dated March.

It's not clear from its text whether any of the Russian attempts were successful, but the intelligence finding is nonetheless startling because it appears to confirm what observers had previously only assumed: that a program ostensibly designed to protect Kremlin satellites could be used to attack Moscow's opponents.

SpaceX, the company that owns Starlink, declined to comment on the matter. Last spring, Musk briefly mentioned the Kremlin's attempts to attack his technology, tweeting in May that while Starlink had demonstrated its resilience against such "jamming and hacking" attempts, the Russians appeared to be stepping up their efforts.

The Pentagon did not respond to questions about the leaked data. "These systems represent an important layer in Ukraine's communications network," said Maj. Charlie Dietz, a Defense Department spokesman. The department's focus, he added, "remains on providing Ukrainians with the satellite capabilities they need."

Konstantin Zhura, a spokesman for Ukraine's defense ministry, said authorities in Kyiv were aware of Russia's efforts and were "taking measures to neutralize them". The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment, the Washington Post said.

Starlink has proven vital to Ukraine's military, which relies on the small portable terminals to communicate across the battlefield and transmit intelligence. Russian forces have had success preventing Ukrainians from using other communications equipment, including radios and cellphones, but satellite signals are more difficult to disrupt.

Last fall, Musk faced a backlash from Ukrainian leaders after he unveiled a plan to end the war that critics saw as too favorable to Russia. Weeks later, the business tycoon was criticized again when he threatened to stop funding the Starlink service. The sharp reaction made him quickly reverse course.

It is unclear whether the Starlink outages reported in Ukraine were the result of Russia's Tobol experiments or other jamming capabilities used by Russian forces, such as the truck-mounted Tirada-2 system. Ukrainian troops reported experiencing disruptions in October as they moved toward Russian positions during successful counteroffensives in the south and east. At the time, Ukrainian officials suggested that SpaceX had restricted Internet access in those areas to prevent Russians from using the service.

Analysts have identified at least seven Tobol complexes in Russia, all located next to facilities used to track space security and sustainability satellites.

Satellite interference can be done in two places: in space, by targeting the satellites directly, and on the ground, where anti-radar weapons can be aimed at the receivers, experts at the Secure World Foundation believe. The interference that takes place in space mixes the signal from the satellite with the original broadcast, which distorts the information that all users of that satellite receive. Tobol almost certainly works that way, says Bart Hendrickx, a researcher who follows the program closely.

The terrestrial method, known as downlink jamming, transmits a signal on the same frequency as the satellite, preventing connected devices from receiving the original signal. This method has a shorter range because it depends on the jammer getting relatively closer to the systems it intends to disrupt.

Musk said last year that a software patch had helped overcome interference at the Starlink terminal. It is unclear if this is a reference to downlink jamming. Tobol is designed to interrupt the signal itself on its way to the terminal.

The leaked document describes Russia's "ongoing military operational experiment to target the Starlink satellite communications system over Ukraine with Russia's Tobol-1" and identifies three locations in Russia where the tests took place. These attempts were most intense near Bakhmut, where the heaviest fighting in the Russian-Ukrainian war was taking place.

The experiment, which began in late September, was supposed to last 25 days, a US intelligence assessment said, but more than five months had passed since tests began by the time the leaked document was prepared for senior US officials. The briefing slide did not say why the experiment took so long, whether Russia encountered any problems, or whether the operation had the intended effect.

Although Russia's positioning of the Tobol complexes in the country may suggest they are used for defensive purposes, the three sites revealed in the US intelligence assessment - one outside Moscow, a site near Crimea and another in the western Russian exclave of Kaliningrad - are the closest facilities to Ukraine, making them suitable for attack. Their coverage area appears to cover all of Ukraine, according to Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation.

"The public documentation we have says this is a defensive system, and the Tobol will be used to detect attempts to jam or interfere with Russian satellites. The complex has to analyze these jamming signals and then emit a countersignal that will try to reject the jamming,” Weeden says. "But if it's able to do that," the expert added, "it could probably use those same capabilities to offensively interfere with someone else's satellite."

Read more from the 420th day of the war in Ukraine.

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Tags: Ukraine, Russia, Musk, tobol


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