The recent revelation that Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, refused to allow Ukraine to use Starlink internet services for a surprise attack on Russian forces in Crimea has raised concerns about the need for explicit provisions in future military contracts. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall highlighted this issue during a roundtable discussion with reporters at the Air Force Association convention in Maryland.
According to a new biography of Musk published by The Washington Post, Ukraine had requested Starlink support in September 2022 to target Russian naval vessels in Sevastopol, Crimea. Musk declined the request due to fears of triggering a nuclear response from Russia. Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014 and is considered its territory.
While Musk was not on a military contract when he declined the Crimea request, the US military has since entered into a funded and official contract with Starlink. The terms and cost of this contract have not been disclosed for operational security reasons.
The incident has led military planners to reevaluate the need for explicit terms in agreements with commercial vendors. Kendall emphasized the importance of assurance that commercial systems will be available for operational use in times of conflict. He stated that relying on such systems during peacetime is merely a convenience, but in wartime, they must be dependable.
SpaceX’s involvement with the US military extends beyond the Ukraine incident. The company has also secured a contract with the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command to develop a rocket ship capable of swiftly transporting military cargo to conflict or disaster zones. General Mike Minihan of the Air Mobility Command emphasized the need for clear understanding regarding the potential uses of commercial systems.
As the US military’s investment in space technology has increased, concerns have arisen regarding liability and the obligation to defend the assets of commercial vendors providing military support during conflicts. The incident in Ukraine has prompted discussions on including language in contracts that explicitly states the intended use of military support.
Andrew Hunter, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology, and logistics, stressed that technology and services acquired for the Air Force are expected to be used for Air Force purposes, including supporting combat operations when necessary.