Musk will do no harm: Starlink for Armed Forces will be under control of Pentagon

Musk will do no harm: Starlink for Armed Forces will be under control of Pentagon

In general, an alternative to satellite communications provided by SpaceX can be found if necessary. There are plenty of options

Probably everyone (or almost everyone) knows who Elon Musk is. First of all, Musk is the owner of SpaceX, Tesla, and the X social network. He is also a Trump supporter, a latent Putin sympathizer, and the man who cut off Starlink in Crimea in the fall of 2022, thus disrupting the Armed Forces of Ukraine operation against the Russian Black Sea Fleet. It is the latter, Starlink, that I would like to talk about in more detail. After all, it is necessary to understand how Musk gained, if not an absolute monopoly, then powerful control over an important military sphere - satellite communications.

Let's try to figure out what to do about it and how to help.

But first, let's quote an excerpt from a large article by the American magazine The New Yorker titled "Elon Musk’s Shadow Rule" (by the way, we recommend reading it): "The intervention of the rich in politics is not a new phenomenon. J.P. Morgan lent substantial funds to the Allied forces during World War I, and John Rockefeller Jr. gave a lot of money to the League of Nations. But Musk's influence is bolder and broader. Current and former officials at NASA, the Pentagon, the Department of Transportation, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said that Musk's influence in their work is now unavoidable. They now treat him as an unofficial government official."

The Pentagon and SpaceX deal: Musk will no longer be able to turn off terminals for Starlink Internet?

"I am well aware that we have a somewhat black-and-white view of Elon Musk's personality right now. But whether we like it or not, he is entitled to any political views. Whether he supports Trump or not is his own business. As the saying goes, to each his own, and there's nothing we can do about it. However, and this is the most important thing, Musk is a businessman. The Starlink technology, which is a project of his company SpaceX, is not about volunteering, but about business," Mykhailo Samus, director of the New Geopolitics Research Network, comments to Ukrinform.

Political expert Yevhen Savisko also emphasizes that Musk is a cynical businessman, and politics and war are also business for him: "He does only what is profitable. If Biden's team offered Musk more money than he receives from Trump and, probably, from Putin, he would immediately go over to the side of his new friends. Musk would become an ardent democrat and Ukrainophile. And his entire empire would start telling him how to help Ukraine."

As for the help... It is important to recall the events of February 24, 2022, when the routers of the American Viasat, which provided communications and the Internet in Ukraine, were brought down by Russian hackers an hour before the attack.

On February 26, Deputy Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov asked Elon Musk via Twitter (now X) to provide Starlink satellite communication stations. The latter agreed. Within two days, the first 500 terminals were in Ukraine. Then another 2000, and with them - kits for autonomous power supply. In March 2022, Ukrainian television was already broadcasting thanks to Starlink. Musk provided communications for the special operations unit and allowed the Ukrainian command to communicate with the US Joint Special Operations Command.

"We were mostly deaf and blind in the first hours of the Russian invasion, with very limited communication capabilities. Musk promptly provided Ukraine with access to Starlink. This made it possible to coordinate operations on the battlefield and strike military targets with jewelry-like precision," says political expert Andriy Senkiv.

Should we thank Musk for this? Of course, yes. But it should be noted that he also benefited from this: in fact, our war has become an opportunity for Musk to test and improve the technology he created on a kind of testing ground.

"But the fact that Starlink services and equipment helped us a lot is a fact," emphasizes Mykhailo Samus, "We simply did not have time to search for complex solutions. We needed to do everything quickly, efficiently and cheaply, and that's what Starlink was all about."

A few months later, information emerged about problems with Internet access through Musk's satellite terminals. For example, as it has only now become known, in September 2022, the Ukrainian Defense Forces planned to secretly attack the Russian fleet in Sevastopol with six surface kamikaze drones. But it was Starlink that was needed to guide them to their target. However, Musk ordered his engineers to turn off Starlink within 100 kilometers of the Crimean coast. As a result, the Ukrainian attack failed.

"Apparently, the 'Crimean operation' was not prepared in close coordination with American partners, otherwise there would have been no problems with communication. Musk said that if he had received a request from the White House, Starlink would have worked in Crimea," says Andriy Senkiv. - Many people forget that Musk's position on Russia's "red line" was widely shared by American experts and diplomats at the time. The fact that the US administration has now changed its position on Crimea and Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory does not change the fact that Musk's point of view reflected the consensus of the White House last September."

Well, so be it. However, how to prevent a similar situation from happening again in the future...

"After the information about Starlink's problems in Crimea, there was a change of approach. The Pentagon approved an agreement with SpaceX to buy Ukraine terminals for Starlink Internet that Musk will not be able to turn off," recalls Mykhailo Samus.

The military expert says that Ukraine will receive (or has already received) several hundred new Starlink terminals and services with guaranteed activation and without the possibility of "manual" intervention by the company's head.

"The Pentagon does not disclose the specific terms of this contract for security reasons, but we can assume that the system in Ukraine is now largely under the control of the US military," says Andriy Senkiv.

Obviously, we can talk about specialized satellite communications for the military under the new Starshield program, which operates on existing satellites in the Starlink network.

"It is unclear from open sources whether the Pentagon has ordered a regular Starlink or a Starshield service for Ukraine," the political expert adds.

According to him, there are significant differences between the first and second services.

"Musk claims that Starlink's terms of service clearly prohibit the use of the service for offensive military operations, while Starshield is a SpaceX trademark for its line of military products for the US government. For example, on September 1 this year, the US Space Force signed a $70 million contract with SpaceX for Starshield services. According to a Space Systems Command spokesperson, "Starshield services are provided by the Starlink satellite group, but differ from the commercial Starlink service in terms of unique conditions for the US Department of Defense that are not found in commercial service contracts," says Mr. Senkiv. - However, this representative did not specify what unique conditions are included in the Starshield contract. Nevertheless, and this is important, U.S. officials say there is language in the contract that will not allow Musk to disable the service at his own whim, regardless of how the U.S. military (customers) use it."

He is complemented by Pavlo Belousov, a digital security expert at Internews Ukraine: "It seems that the Pentagon will decide what, where, how and for what purposes this service will work. Perhaps the control of the military or government agencies will increase, given the problems Musk has created with his decisions."

According to our interlocutors, it is unlikely that Musk will dare to violate the agreement with the Pentagon, as he will then face huge problems, as it is about the interests of the US national security.

"Musk is well aware of this, so his antics have their limits. I don't think he will turn off and block the terminals provided by the US Department of Defense, otherwise he will be reminded of everything that happened and what could have happened," emphasized political expert Yevhen Savisko.

At the same time, Andriy Senkiv says that the United States has legislative mechanisms that can be used to hold an American company accountable for its actions on foreign territory. Depending on the violation committed, the company falls under the jurisdiction of the federal court or the state court where it was registered.

However, in the case of satellite communications, there is also a "third" territory - space.

"And here, lawyers face many ambiguous interpretations of provisions and legislative loopholes, which greatly complicate the settlement," the expert emphasizes.

Such uncertainties, in particular regarding the wording in contracts between suppliers and consumers, under which a company provides services during the war that can be used to support military operations, are now the subject of Senate hearings with the participation of high-tech business leaders.

"So, we should expect changes in the local legislation and adjustments to their contracts by American companies soon," said Mr. Senkiv.

The question of the day: how dependent is the Armed Forces of Ukraine on Starlink and are there any alternatives?

"The communications and control systems of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, including automated ones, are really dependent on Starlink. Starlink also makes it much easier to control the drones we use for reconnaissance operations, because it can work even in places where the communication situation is very problematic. The transmission of information requires a high-quality Internet connection, and it is quite difficult to jam the Starlink signal using electronic warfare," says Mykhailo Samus.

"Enemy electronic warfare devices are operating along the entire front line (of course, ours are also working). Among the most common are the RB-341B Leer-3 GSM communication suppression complex, the RB-301B Borysoglebsk-2 HF and VHF electronic suppression complex, the R-330Zh Zhitel automated jamming station and the 1RL257 Krasukha-4 electronic warfare system. All of these systems are designed to jam standard radio communications, intercept mobile communications, and provide active interference and countermeasures to the onboard radars of strike, reconnaissance, and unmanned aircraft. However, Starlink has all of this "backwards" and is protected from the effects of such installations, as it is powered directly by satellites.

"Starlink solves the problem of Internet availability in almost any conditions: just in the field, where there is no electricity and other communications. The terminal itself is quite inexpensive to buy (especially when compared to military equipment/electronics), there are a lot of terminals sold everywhere and there is practically no shortage," says Pavlo Belousov. - "That is, one of the most important tasks (communication) is solved quite simply. Having the Internet available to the military gives them many advantages for many tasks, as communication is one of the key components. From communication with relatives to organizing attacks with naval drones."

Valeriy Yakovenko, co-founder of and an expert in drone technology, emphasizes that Starlink technology is not unique: "We are part of the civilized world, and all the technologies we would like to use are open to us. The only thing that distinguishes them is their cost. While Starlink can cost a few hundred dollars, alternative options start at several thousand dollars."

So what are these alternatives?

"Starlink is the most promoted project for providing the Internet via satellites, but it is not a monopoly. There are a number of successful international commercial projects in the world, such as Intelsat, Eutelsat, Satcube, Iridium, etc.", says Yevhen Savisko.

Intelsat is the oldest international satellite communications consortium founded in 1964. Gradually, more than 140 countries became Intelsat members. In 1965, the organization launched the world's first commercial communication satellite, Early Bird. In 1969, it transmitted television images of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Now the company has 56 satellites. By the way, this company has recently initiated the supply of Satcube satellite terminals to Ukraine worth about SEK 70 million (EUR 6.5 million). The purchase is paid for by Germany. Importantly, Satcube has no objection to the use of their equipment by our military.

Eutelsat was founded in 1977 by 17 European countries to develop and operate Europe's satellite telecommunications infrastructure. The company now has 36 satellites that provide coverage of the European continent, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Iridium was founded in 1991. Initially, it was owned by Motorola. Subsequently, investors from Japan, Germany, and... Russia acquired most of the shares. However, after declaring bankruptcy in 1999, the company was bought by the Pentagon. The U.S. Department of Defense decided to use the satellites not only for its own needs: to save on costs, the military continued to use them commercially. Currently, the Iridium system includes 77 satellites. The operator provides 100% coverage of the Earth's surface.

"In addition to those already mentioned, there are many other potentially promising projects. For example, the British-Indian company OneWeb, which plans to deploy 648 satellites, and Project Kuiper, the brainchild of Amazon [billionaire Joseph Bezos], which plans to deploy 3,236 satellites. Finally, the Canadian company Telesat LEO, which plans to deploy 292 satellites," adds political expert Dmytro Franchuk.

So, there is an alternative. But how quickly can these solutions be adapted, if necessary?

Pavlo Belousov argues that the above-mentioned technologies lose out to Starlink in such issues as availability, quantity, price, ease of use, etc: "Plus, during the 19 months of the Great War, we learned how to repair almost all Starlink components, built the infrastructure, organized a bunch of maintenance services, print components for protection on CD printers, sew cases, and so on. So we know almost everything about Starlink. During the war, it is possible to "move" to something completely different, but it is definitely not easy."

However, private companies are not the only ones.

Mykhailo Samus says that the Pentagon does not use the services of any private company, but has its own satellites: "Because it is about protecting national interests. Similarly, the French and British Defense Ministries do not use Starlink, and so on. So what's my point? My point is that partners can provide the Armed Forces of Ukraine with military Internet and special communications. Although this is not a quick process."

It requires not only financial resources but also appropriate political decisions.

"But I am convinced that these issues are constantly being raised at the Ramstein meetings, during bilateral meetings," - added the military expert.

Recently, he says, there has been no information about any interruptions in Starlink's operation.

"So far, I see no reason not to use what is at hand, which is fast, cheap, and effective. However, if Musk suddenly starts again... there will be an alternative. The Armed Forces of Ukraine will definitely not be left without satellite communications," reassures Mykhailo Samus.

Myroslav Liskovych, Kyiv

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