In an Opinion piece published on 2023-08-30 and signed by “the Editorial Board”, the Washington Post opined, “Elon Musk’s control over satellite internet demands a reckoning”.
When Elon Musk reportedly spoke of a “great conversation” with Russian President Vladimir Putin, minutes after declaring he could see “the entire war unfolding” through a map of activity on the small satellite constellation he owns, a senior defense official had the following reaction: “Oh dear, this is not good.”
The statement, featured in a recent New Yorker article, aptly captures the situation in which the United States government finds itself. A single man exerts considerable control over the satellite internet industry that operates in “low Earth orbit” — generally about 300 miles above Earth — even as that industry is crucial to the war effort in Ukraine. Worse still, that man is the erratic Mr. Musk. There are just shy of 8,000 satellites in the skies today; more than 4,500 of those are Starlink satellites, launched by SpaceX. The company hopes to multiply this number almost tenfold in the coming years.
Starlink is far from the first constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit and far from the first to sell to militaries. But what distinguishes the network is the amount of data it can move, as well as how quickly it can increase that capacity: SpaceX can launch satellites unprecedentedly fast and at unprecedentedly low cost thanks to the reusable rockets it has pioneered. The bigger the satellite fleet, the more versatile and effective: As a satellite flies above a terminal located on the ground, it transfers the signal to a satellite behind it, and so on, forming a chain that ensures users maintain constant access to the internet.
Using a technique known as geofencing, Mr. Musk has restricted his satellites’ availability on the front lines. Purportedly, he’s wary of aiding an offensive rather than merely a defensive war, which isn’t surprising given his proposal for a “peace plan” whose defining feature was its generosity toward Russia. Sometimes, when Ukraine has wanted to retake Russian-occupied cities, its government has had to message SpaceX employees or the CEO himself for permission. Ukraine’s request at one point to send a drone into ships docked in the Black Sea near Crimea was reportedly rebuffed.
Mr. Musk is the wrong person to be making these calls. The Defense Department announced a deal with SpaceX in June. (Ukraine had been getting Starlink capacity for free until the richest man in the world, not unreasonably, changed his mind.) The details aren’t public, but reporting suggests that the Pentagon will determine when and where the 400 to 500 new devices it is purchasing will work — within Ukraine’s territory, at least. The short-term solution to the Starlink conundrum is for the United States to continue this kind of negotiation, allowing itself more autonomy to assist Ukraine in carrying out crucial missions.
What’s to be done? While a president theoretically has the legal option of nationalizing Starlink in a worst-case scenario, as Woodrow Wilson did with the country’s railroads during World War I, that would be neither politically popular nor prudent. A better solution might be for the United States to try to build satellites of its own. The $1.5 billion contract the Pentagon awarded last week to Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to create a low-orbit satellite constellation is the start of such a strategy.
The plan aims for only 72 satellites, roughly 1 percent of the number SpaceX has put into the sky. All the United States has to do, however, is muster a fleet large enough to enable smaller-scale but essential operations, so Starlink is no longer the democratic world’s only good option. This might not happen quickly, given the slowness and scleroticism for which the giants of the realm of military contracting are known. Encouraging Silicon Valley hotshots and others in private industry to inject some competition might help. The upside could be less waste and more innovation — exactly as SpaceX and Starlink have demonstrated. The downside is just as obvious.
Never mentioned in the article is that Jeff Bezos, sole owner of the Washington Post (through his holding company, Nash Holdings LLC), is founder of Kuiper Systems, a subsidiary of Amazon, which has received a license to deploy a low-Earth orbit constellation of 3,236 satellites which will directly compete with SpaceX’s Starlink if it ever manages to get its satellites into orbit.
“Elon, you emigrated to the wrong country.“™