SpaceX admits blocking Ukrainian troops from using satellite technology
The president of SpaceX revealed the company has taken active steps to prevent Ukrainian forces from using the critical Starlink satellite technology with Ukrainian drones that are a key component of their fight against Russia.
“There are things that we can do to limit their ability to do that,” Gwynne Shotwell told reporters on Wednesday, referencing reports on Starlink and drone use. “There are things that we can do, and have done.”
Starlink was never meant to be used militarily in the way that it has, Shotwell argued, saying the company didn’t foresee how profoundly – and creatively – Ukrainian forces would rely on the technology.
“It was never intended to be weaponized,” Shotwell told an audience at a space conference. “However, Ukrainians have leveraged it in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement.”
Shotwell’s admission that SpaceX, which was founded by Elon Musk, has prevented Ukrainian soldiers from fully using the technology confirms the long-standing belief that Musk and the company are uneasy with Ukraine’s military use of Starlink.
Speaking with reporters after, Shotwell argued that Starlink had sent units to Ukraine to “keep the banks going, hospitals, keep families connected.”
“We know the military is using them for comms, and that’s OK,” Shotwell added. “But our intent was never to have them use it for offensive purposes.”
Last October, Musk angered Ukrainians, including President Volodymyr Zelensky, for proposing a peace plan on Twitter that argued Ukraine just give up efforts to reclaim Crimea and cede control of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
That same month, there were reports that the Starlink signal had been restricted and was not available past the front line as Ukrainian troops tried to advance, essentially hamstringing their efforts to retake territory from the Russians. Those reports of the outages fueled accusations that Musk was kowtowing to Russia.
“That has affected every effort of the Ukrainians to push past that front,” a person familiar with the outages told CNN in October. “Starlink is the main way units on the battlefield have to communicate.”
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Ukrainian troops have roundly praised Starlink as a game-changing piece of satellite technology that has not only allowed them to maintain communications, but also better target Russian forces with artillery and drones.
After Musk received Ukrainian – and global – praise for quickly delivering Starlink capabilities to Ukraine, CNN obtained exclusive documents showing that SpaceX was trying to get the Pentagon to start paying for thousands of terminals, along with their expensive connectivity, for Ukraine’s military and intelligence services. Thousands of units had also quietly been purchased by third countries for Ukraine.
One senior defense official told CNN that SpaceX had “the gall to look like heroes” while having others pay so much.
Musk responded quickly to CNN’s report, tweeting, “The hell with it…we’ll just keep funding Ukraine govt for free.”
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However, SpaceX and the Pentagon had continued discussions about a possible deal for military units, according to people familiar with the conversations. On Wednesday, Shotwell indicated at least part of those conversations had ended.
“I was the one that asked the Pentagon to fund, this was not an Elon thing,” Shotwell said on Wednesday. “We stopped interacting with the Pentagon on the existing capability. They are not paying.”
SpaceX had never envisioned that Starlink would be used in Ukraine the way it has been, Shotwell said, echoing coverage and accounts of Ukrainian troops’ ingenuity on the battlefield.
“Honestly,” she said, “I don’t even think we thought about it. You know, it could be used that way? We didn’t think about it. I didn’t think about it. Our Starlink team may have, I don’t know. But we’ve learned pretty quickly.”