Starlink is far from the first constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit and far from the first to be sold to armies. But what sets the network apart is the amount of data it can move, as well as how quickly it can ramp up that capacity: SpaceX can launch satellites at unprecedented speed and at unprecedented cost thanks to the reusable rockets it pioneered. The larger the satellite fleet, the more versatile and effective: as a satellite flies over a terminal located on the ground, it transfers the signal to a satellite behind it, and so on, forming a chain that guarantees users constant access to Internet. .
By working together, these satellites can provide this type of service even in remote locations. And, of course, they can provide it in places where traditional methods of connection, for whatever reason, are not available, such as war zones.
Starlink has been a boon to Ukraine’s efforts to repel the Russian invasion since Ukraine’s digital minister tweeted a request for assistance to Musk in February 2022 and Musk responded. The problem with relying on a key technology for battlefield communications, however, is that it also means relying on whoever controls that technology. And because Starlink is a commercial company rather than a traditional defense contractor, Musk was largely able to take the decisions verbatim in this case.
Using a technique known as geofencing, Musk has limited the availability of his frontline satellites. Presumably, he is wary of favoring offensive warfare over mere defense, which is not surprising given his proposed peace plan whose defining characteristic was generosity to Russia. Sometimes, when Ukraine wanted to retake Russian-occupied cities, its government had to ask permission from SpaceX employees or the CEO himself. Ukraine’s request to send a drone to ships docked in the Black Sea near Crimea has reportedly been denied.
Mr. Musk is the wrong person to be making these calls. The Department of Defense announced a deal with SpaceX in June. (Ukraine had gotten Starlink capability for free until the richest man in the world, not unreasonably, changed his mind.) The details aren’t public, but reports suggest the Pentagon will determine when and where the 400- 500 new devices it is buying. it will work at least on Ukrainian territory. The short-term solution to the Starlink conundrum is for the United States to continue these kinds of negotiations, giving itself more autonomy to assist Ukraine in carrying out crucial missions.
The long term, however, looks tricky. Ukraine is unlikely to be the only US-friendly country to come into conflict with an enemy eager to sabotage its Internet. The region of the most concern right now, unsurprisingly, is East Asia, where Taiwanese officials are mulling how to handle the possibility of a Chinese invasion where undersea cables linking the island to world communications infrastructure they are cut. Given that the success of Tesla, the electric car company that Musk co-founded and leads, depends on its ability to produce cars in China, relying on Starlink seems like a bad idea. It could also be a bad idea for the US government more generally, if the US wanted to be able to choose how to defend its interests and those of its allies.
What needs to be done? While a president theoretically has the legal option of nationalize Starlink in a worst-case scenario, as Woodrow Wilson did with the country’s railroads during World War I, this would be neither politically popular nor prudent. A better solution might be for the US to try building its own satellites. The $1.5 billion contract the Pentagon awarded last week to Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to create a constellation of low-orbit satellites is the beginning of that strategy.
The plan calls for just 72 satellites, about 1 percent of the number SpaceX has put into the sky. All the United States has to do, however, is assemble a fleet large enough to allow for small-scale but essential operations, so Starlink is no longer the democratic world’s only good option. This may not happen quickly, given the sluggishness and scleroticism that military procurement giants are notorious for. Encouraging Silicon Valley players and other private industry players to inject some competition might help. The advantage could be less waste and more innovation, exactly as SpaceX and Starlink have demonstrated. The disadvantage is just as obvious.
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