The recent revelation that SpaceX founder Elon Musk denied Ukraine’s request to use Starlink internet services to launch an attack on Russian forces in Crimea has prompted discussions about the need for more explicit terms in future military contracts. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall highlighted the issue, suggesting that the US military should ensure that services or products it acquires could be used in warfare.
According to excerpts from a biography of Musk, Ukraine sought support from Starlink in September 2022 to target Russian naval vessels in the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Musk turned down the request due to concerns about a potential nuclear retaliation from Russia. Crimea was seized by Russia from Ukraine in 2014 and is considered Russian territory.
At the time of the Crimea request, Musk was not under a military contract but had been supplying free terminals to Ukraine in response to Russia’s invasion earlier that year. However, since then, the US military has officially contracted Starlink and provided funding for continued support. Details regarding the terms and cost of the contract have not been disclosed for operational security reasons.
The Pentagon heavily relies on SpaceX for various purposes beyond the Ukraine situation. The uncertainty of commercial vendors refusing services during future conflicts has led military planners to reconsider the need for explicit agreements. Kendall emphasized the importance of having assurances that such systems will be available for operational use during wartime, highlighting that they cannot solely be treated as conveniences or cost-effective options during peacetime.
SpaceX is also involved in a contract with the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command to develop a rocket ship capable of quickly transporting military cargo in conflict or disaster zones. General Mike Minihan, head of Air Mobility Command, emphasized the need for clear-eyed understanding of the potential uses of American industry in military operations.
As US military investments in space have increased, concerns have arisen regarding the indemnification of commercial vendors and the military’s responsibility to defend their assets, including satellites and ground stations, when providing military support during conflicts. Musk’s refusal in Ukraine has drawn attention to the importance of explicitly stating that support provided by a firm must be available for combat purposes.
The Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Andrew Hunter, emphasized that when the military acquires technology or services, it expects them to be utilized for Air Force purposes, which include supporting combat operations when necessary.