SpaceX Limits Use of Starlink in Ukraine

SpaceX blocked Ukraine’s ability to use Starlink’s Internet connectivity to control its offensive capabilities, including its use of drones on the battlefield.

Its reasoning? Starlink’s capabilities were “never, never meant to be weaponized,” according to SpaceX president Gwynn Shotwell. “Ukrainians have leveraged it in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement.”

Shotwell made her comments at the 25th annual Federal Aviation Administration Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, D.C. The agenda for this year’s event included panel discussions of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) applications like Starlink’s satellite constellation. Other speakers and panel members included representatives from Axiom Space, Blue Origin, and Virgin Orbit, all of which are working on applications for assets that will reside in Low-Earth Orbit.

This does not mean Starlink couldn’t be used for purposes other than providing Internet access. Somebody found a way to use it to create a GPS-like navigation system by reverse-engineering Starlink satellites’ signals. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk did not seem to approve of the potential application despite some initial interest from executives, saying that SpaceX did not need the distraction.

The decision to block use of Starlink for offensive purposes could put SpaceX in an awkward spot, considering that Ukraine is currently defending against a Russian invasion that began in early 2022. SpaceX initially agreed to provide Starlink terminals to help with communications.

Since then, who pays for Starlink service in Ukraine has been an issue. SpaceX previously cut off service to 1,300 of the 25,000 Starlink terminals in Ukraine due to lack of payment. Since then, it opened negotiations with the U.S. Pentagon to fund continued use of Starlink in Ukraine.

“Negotiations are very much underway. Everyone in our building knows we’re going to pay them,” a Pentagon official told CNN last year.

Starlink is mostly used by civilians to access the Internet. Many of them live in areas where there aren’t many good options for reliable access to high-speed Internet. Some of them may benefit from local governments’ willingness to talk with SpaceX to provide Internet access for residents of remote or low-income communities. In May 2022, Starlink passed 400,000 Starlink users and it still has a long waitlist.

Despite Shotwell’s objections to using Starlink for offensive capabilities, SpaceX did come up with a potential use for a Starlink derivative called Starshield. It says Starshield is meant to help with national security issues.

SpaceX estimated that it spends $20 million per month to keep access open to Ukraine, most of which probably goes toward beefing up its security. The advanced cybersecurity needed to keep Starlink up and running despite Russian attempts to interfere with it can’t be cheap.

SpaceX, of course, does not have unlimited amounts of money to spend on it. Considering everything else it has going on, including an important upcoming test of its Starship rocket and planned launches of satellites for paying customers, it may simply be unwilling to bankrupt itself for Ukraine. Elon Musk also indicated that SpaceX may not expect to “recoup past expenses,” but it also can’t burn through money indefinitely to provide communications capability for one country’s defense efforts.

SpaceX already increased Starlink’s ability to resist attempts to jam its signals. This earned some interest from the Pentagon, which would naturally be interested in a communications option that is hard for an enemy to interfere with.

However, SpaceX seems to draw the line at using Starlink for offensive purposes like Ukraine’s possible intention to use it to control its drones on the battlefield. It may have picked an awkward time to make that call, considering that Ukraine is still dealing with the Russian invasion and SpaceX already went public with its Starshield concept.