SpaceX has taken steps to prevent Ukraine’s military from using the company’s Starlink satellite internet service for controlling drones in the region during the country’s war with Russia, SpaceX’s president said Wednesday, Reuters reported.
According to Reuters, SpaceX’s Starlink satellite service, which has provided Ukraine’s military with broadband communications in its defense against Russia’s military, was “never never meant to be weaponized,” Gwynn Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, said during a conference in Washington, D.C. “However, Ukrainians have leveraged it in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement,” she said.
Reuters also reported that using Starlink with drones went beyond the scope of an agreement SpaceX has with the Ukrainian government, Shotwell said, adding the contract was intended for humanitarian purposes such as providing broadband internet to hospitals, banks, and families affected by Russia’s invasion.
“We know the military is using them for comms, and that’s ok,” she said, “But our intent was never to have them use it for offensive purposes.”
BBC News reported that after invading its neighbor in February of last year, Russia quickly looked to close down local internet services and block social media. The first Starlink dishes – or terminals – were provided to Ukraine soon after, in an effort to ensure people stayed connected.
According to the BBC, they work by connecting satellites in low-Earth orbit.
In October, Mr. Musk signaled that he could not continue funding Starlink in Ukraine, before rapidly reversing his position.
In a tweet last week, the billionaire again addressed the issue and acknowledged that there was a dilemma at work.
“SpaceX Starlink has become the connectivity backbone of Ukraine all the way up to the front lines. This is the damned if you do part,” he wrote.
“However, we are not allowing Starlink to be used for long-range drone strikes. This is the damned if you don’t part.”
Politico reported that just days after the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which came with an array of cyberattacks against the country’s infrastructure, SpaceX moved to connect Ukraine to its satellite internet network, allowing online access without the need for fiber cables.
According to Politico, Mr. Musk raised concerns in Kyiv and among Western allies last October after he tweeted a series of Kremlin talking points, presenting them as a peace plan. Later in October, Musk also said he was no longer willing to pay for the Starlink internet terminals in Ukraine, asking the U.S. Department of Defense to take over responsibility instead.
To me, it sounds like two separate problems are happening. One, it appears that Starlink is happy to have the Ukraine military use their satellites for communications purposes, but not for long-range drone strikes.
Two, some of this problem falls on Elon Musk, who may have been funding Starlink for use by the Ukraine military. But now, after spending a huge chunk of his own money on buying Twitter, Mr. Musk appears to want to remove himself from the obligation he chose in regards to Starlink and Ukraine. It is concerning that a billionaire asked the U.S. Department of Defense to take over the responsibility of paying for Ukraine’s access to Starlink.