Decrying Starlink's 'Weaponization,' SpaceX Cuts Support for Ukrainian Military
But Wednesday's explanation by the Elon Musk-founded company is at odds with its continuing work for the U.S. military.
SpaceX will no longer support certain Ukrainian military operations through its Starlink satellite-communications service, the company’s president said on Wednesday, explaining that the tech was “never meant to be weaponized.” But Gwynne Shotwell’s explanation is at odds with Starlink’s role in recent U.S. Army modernization experiments that seek to fire on targets more quickly.
SpaceX began providing Starlink terminals to Ukraine shortly after Russia invaded in February 2022. The satellite service—along with help from other Western IT companies—helped Ukraine ride out a Russian cyberattack intended to knock Ukraine’s civilian population and government offline. That enduring connectivity has helped distribute aid, medicine, and supplies, and enabled Ukrainians to document and publicize Russian war crimes. And it’s been vital to the Ukrainian military, which uses it for purposes such as communicating with Western experts about equipment upkeep and guiding drone strikes on Russian positions.
On Wednesday, Shotwell said has taken steps to keep Ukraine from using Starlink to control armed drones and perform other military tasks.
“We were really pleased to be able to provide Ukraine connectivity, and help them in their…fight for freedom. It was never intended to be weaponized, however,” the SpaceX president said during an FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference, according to Breaking Defense.
SpaceX’s work for the U.S. military suggests otherwise. In May 2020, the company signed a cooperative research and development agreement with the Army to look at battlefield applications for the Starlink broadband. Later that year, Starlink played a key role in the service's inaugural Project Convergence experiment to test new and more interconnected weapons and systems.
Broadband satellite connectivity from SpaceX and other providers was an even more important part of the following year’s Project Convergence, according to two military officials who spoke to Defense One at Yuma Proving Grounds that year. A big part of the reason for that was the increase in the number of commercial low earth orbit satellites like Starlink.
“The biggest difference in 2021 is really just the availability of low Earth orbit satellite constellation has matured much more,” said one official. “We were having minutes of windows of time for [low earth orbit satellite communications], last year. This year, we're going on 24, you know, almost a continuous capability.”
That high-bandwidth, low-latency satellite connectivity was important in helping the Army better meet mission objectives, finding and engaging more targets, faster.
In November, Olha Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, told reporters that Starlink communications were a “signal of life” for Ukrainians, but said the country was growing increasingly concerned about the ever-erratic behavior of the company’s founder, Elon Musk—especially after Musk made attempts to charge the Pentagon for Starlink services he had donated. Ukrainian officials said they are looking for alternatives to SpaceX.