In times of war, satellite communications are an important element in coordinating the actions of military units along the front line with each other and with command posts. Therefore, the supply of Western equipment for satellite systems is critical for the Russian army. Slidstvo.Info investigated in detail the path of satellite kits under the Gilat Satellite Networks brand, which are likely being manufactured in Ukraine and later may end up at the front.

Slidstvo.Info journalists talked to Serhiy “Flash” Beskrestnov, an expert on military communications, a consultant in the field of radio and military technologies, and a tech blogger.

What is special about Gilat satellite communications equipment imported to Russia, which may end up with the Russian army at the front?

The Ukrainian Armed Forces use Starlink systems that work in conjunction with a large number of satellites, to which the antenna is tuned automatically. As a result, any device can be placed almost anywhere in the world.

Older systems work like satellite television: a satellite “hovers” in one point, and the antenna needs to be directed to this satellite. The disadvantage of this principle is a long signal delay (the satellite is very high – at an altitude of 36,000 kilometers). Therefore, this system provides a low data transfer rate and cannot be used, for example, for streaming video. This speed allows us to serve voice channels and military repeaters.

Russia is covered by two satellite groups – Yamal and Express. “The Yamal are commercial satellites owned by Gazprom, while Express is a state-owned network. Both networks also serve the needs of the military. If you look at the pictures of the frontline now, you can spot a lot of “dishes”, especially in Kharkiv Oblast, pointing in one direction – where the satellites of these two networks are hovering. Obviously, if the Russians have their own satellites, there is no point in paying for the use of someone else’s groups.

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Another point: Starlink traffic (satellite systems of the American company SpaceX – ed.) can be tracked. Therefore, for the Russians, using their systems is simply safer from this point of view as this traffic goes through Russian servers.

Gilat has been supplying equipment for such systems since the 2000s, helping to deploy satellite infrastructure in Russia.

Can we say that it is Gilat that is used as satellite communications equipment by the Russian military?

If we look at Gilat’s website, we see that they do a lot of things – from satellite internet for boats, yachts, civilian aircraft to military solutions. Of course, you won’t see Gazprom among the partners on the international website. But on any electronics sales site that sells either Gazprom Space Systems services or satellite equipment for access to the Yamal or Express groups, in all likelihood, it will be Gilat equipment.

At the front, if there is a satellite terminal on the Russian side, we see the words “Gazprom” or we can tell by the shape that these are Gilat dishes.

Unfortunately, we can’t say whether it was a targeted purchase by the military or whether it was bought in a store by people and transferred to the army. Because a terminal is hardware, and you pay for the service to the operator you are connected to. Formally, the “dishes” can be produced in any country in the world, because they are just pressed disks, and it’s just a matter of production costs and logistics.

Gilat has a lot of solutions for the military, and they are probably used by many armies around the world, including the Israeli army.

Is it possible that other customers or counterparties of this company, such as the US government, have access to information that passes through these systems in Russian networks?

If you work with Russian Gazprom/Yamal, you have to use their communication channels exclusively. It is impossible to use them to conduct triangulation (one of the ways to determine the distance to a radio wave source – ed.), calculate presence in a certain area, or solve other problems. That is, it is a very limited use case. On top of that, all traffic goes through the Russian segment.

If part of the traffic goes through the European segment (this is also possible as we don’t know how the routing schemes are built), then the traffic can theoretically be analyzed. But I’m sure that now the Russians are using exclusively their own servers. If anyone knows about what’s going on there, it might be Israeli intelligence. But it will never admit it.

Recently, there were reports of a hacker attack by the Ukrainian IT army on Russian satellite systems. Was it an attack on the satellites themselves or on the ground infrastructure?

Hackers always attack ground-based infrastructure, servers that can be compromised. To attack satellite groups, you need electronic warfare (EW) systems, which are more the realm of state programs. For example, Russia has Tirada systems that are specially designed to suppress satellite groups. The Yamal and Express satellites are susceptible to jamming, unlike modern European satellites.

Modern satellites have a system of multi-beam antennas, so the satellite can simply “cut out” electronic interference from the ground and continue working. Older satellites have a single wide beam, and if interference is deliberately turned on from the area where it is aimed, the satellite will simply “go blind”. But a simpler way is, of course, to attack the ground infrastructure.

Is it possible that a company like Gilat will leave the Russian market and how will this affect the supply of satellite equipment to end users, including the military?

It is very doubtful that a company of this scale will be able to completely leave this market, but I would not rule out certain restrictions on working in Russia. But first, we need to prove that these terminals are being purposefully used by the military in the war against Ukraine.

It may turn out that the systems we see are stocks from previous years, before the sanctions began. There may have been X thousands of them, and now providers are re-selling them. The terminals are working with Russian satellites, so no one is formally violating anything. It will be hard to argue with this. They can claim that this is not a solution for the military, but for critical infrastructure facilities, for hospitals in Buryatia, Yakutia, etc., and show some contracts. But if some hooligan bought it and delivered it to the front, well… Starlink is also bought by hooligans and delivered to the front. Of course, if there is a direct contract between Gilat and the Ministry of Defense, it will be a major screw-up.

However, even if it were possible to prove a direct supply, or a very large number of terminals (provided that it was clearly not someone from Yakutia who handed over industrial batches to a relative), terminals from other manufacturers could be purchased. Because these are standardized systems.

What is the estimate of how many such terminals the frontline can “absorb”?

This is a question along the lines of “How many electronic warfare devices do you need at the front”. Any unit would be happy to have one or more of these satellite terminals. While the frontline has easily “swallowed” 60,000-70,000 Starlink terminals from our side, and this has not satisfied its needs, the demand from the Russians is no less.

During aerial reconnaissance, we see more and more of these “burdocks” (satellites – ed.), and they cannot be hidden, because the disk with a diameter of 90-100 cm must be in the open. There is a 25-30 cm antenna in the middle, so we immediately realize that it is for satellite internet. And they are easy to identify visually. We see them not just in a single spot, but everywhere along the front.

Since these satellites are “hovering” to serve Russia, they only cover the eastern part of the front. Kharkiv sector, Kupyansk, Lyman and down to Bakhmut – there are a lot of them in this part. More and more satellite systems are appearing. I teach the guys how to recognize them, and we destroy them. These are priority targets for us.

Theoretically, the manufacturer could, of course, insert GPS trackers or other systems to prevent such terminals from working at the front or in the interests of the military. But there would be countermeasures and circumvention methods, so it’s basically a dead end. It would be much more effective to block the satellites themselves. But at this stage, this option is not available.

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