Why the Pentagon’s Crush on Elon Musk Is Dangerous to Democracy
Once considered a cross between Thomas Edison and Moses, Musk is revealing himself to be an ill-informed, would-be tyrant.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s current spat with the Pentagon over who will pay for satellite internet services over Ukraine illustrates how democracy is vulnerable to the whims of authoritarian-minded tech magnates. But in the case of Musk, Pentagon officials are partially to blame.
A villain to some and a hero to others, Musk owns the Starlink communications satellites that are helping to keep many Ukrainians connected to the internet. Until recently, he seemed to many U.S. military leaders a model for how to build things in the age of information technology. Musk has headlined military conferences where he lectured the Defense Department on what it needed to do to be faster and cheaper. He has hosted key military leaders for private dinners, leaders who spoke about him in public with unguarded adulation.
“Look at SpaceX,” said Gen. John Hyten in 2020, when he was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Hyten, who has since retired, lauded the company's ability to learn from launch failures. “Did they stop? No…They launched rapidly again. They changed systems. They changed subsystems. They go in a completely different direction."
The anecdote painted a contrast between Musk’s nimble methods and the cumbersome process of Defense Department technology development. For a military that has become obsessed with remaking itself in the mode of a Silicon Valley startup, Musk emerged as a cross between Thomas Edison and Moses.
Of course, SpaceX and Musk owe much to the Pentagon and to the federal government. The Air Force and the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, were among the company’s first and most critical backers. Contracts from the DARPA Falcon program in 2005 and NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program in 2006 helped the company produce its profitable Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket. Musk himself has noted NASA contracts' importance to the company’s survival. All this government money has helped SpaceX move faster than the rest of the private satellite-launch market. And SpaceX has emerged as a major player in virtually every area where the military uses space.
Just how deep is the Pentagon’s reliance on Musk? From launching imagery satellites to building missile-tracking satellites, and, of course, satellite communications through Starlink, SpaceX is a major player in the military’s most important space-related endeavors.
Last week, Musk threatened to bill the Pentagon for Starlink services in Ukraine that SpaceX had been providing for free. though he abandoned the threat days later. Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said, “There’s not just SpaceX, there are other entities that we can certainly partner with when it comes to providing Ukraine what they need on the battlefield.” But Singh would not name other options to SpaceX, which says a lot about the current state of space access. The Pentagon isn’t very reliant on Starlink at this time; Ukraine is. But getting to space without SpaceX is like the Beatles without John: not a good bargain.
The satellite communications provided by Musk’s company are playing a major role in the fight against Russia’s invading forces in Ukraine. From Donetsk to Frankfurt, Starlink is enabling Ukraine’s rapid use of intelligence to out maneuver Russian forces and connecting Ukrainians with weapons maintainers and suppliers to quickly bring damaged weapons back online and bring replacements in.
The battlefield utility of Starlink has given Musk a certain amount of leverage over the people of Ukraine. As Russia has increased its nuclear saber-rattling, Musk has decided to exert it (and do so at a time when he was also asking the Pentagon for money to continue the Starlink services). A few weeks ago, Musk casually floated on Twitter the notion that Ukraine should simply cede the stolen Crimean peninsula to Russia.
Ukrainians and others attempted to remind Musk that Crimea was illegally seized from Ukraine, and that Moscow continues to persecute Tatars on the peninsula and to use it as a hub to push troops into Ukraine and extend its reach into the Black Sea. Ukrainians were rightly upset that Musk spoke for them and their interests. Western experts on Russia such as Fiona Hill, a former U.S. intelligence official who is now senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, accused Musk of essentially laundering Russian talking points on Twitter. Musk responded by retweeting an opinion piece by venture capitalist-turned-podcaster David Sacks, warning that “neocons and the woke left” were leading the United States towards nuclear war.
It takes the sort of extreme arrogance of a U.S. technology entrepreneur to substitute his own opinion in the place of democratically-elected presidents and officials across the entire Western world, international institutions like NATO, hundreds of diplomats, foreign affairs professionals, journalists, freedom advocates and, of course, Ukrainians. That’s why the very thing that makes Musk such a successful tech entrepreneur also makes him a danger.
There’s a reason that Defense Department bureaucracy moves at the pace that it does and why it is structurally risk-averse. Pentagon leadership is accountable to Congress and the public. While Pentagon decision-makers can and must create a new relationship with risk and remove hobbling barriers, they are still ultimately beholden to the same mechanisms of government and public scrutiny that enable democracy.
The privately held SpaceX, on the other hand, functions much like a startup—and like “a structured monarchy,” as described in the book Zero to One, which is a kind of Machiavellian explainer on startups from venture capitalist and democracy-adversary Peter Thiel. Musk is becoming increasingly comfortable in the role of super-powerful authoritarian. He’s harassed Tesla whistleblowers for leaking to the media and is famously distrustful of the press. But Musk’s brand of arrogance goes from annoying to dangerous when it’s connected to actual battlefield outcomes.
Last week, Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, said that Musk revealed to him that he was personally blocking the Ukrainians from using Starlink in Crimea, and that the tech exec had taken it upon himself to talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin about the war before floating his “peace plan.” Musk denied it.
Musk’s authoritarian mindset might fly atop an electric car company or rocket maker. But authoritarianism applied to human beings, their sense of identity, home, justice, and being, is antithetical to democracy. We’re quickly arriving at a point where the cause of democracy in Ukraine—and next, perhaps, Taiwan—is beholden to the ill-informed opinions and personal grudges of a modern-day tyrant. Before they go any further with Musk or his companies, U.S. military and intelligence officials would be right reconsider how closely they want to rely on him to protect democracy in America.