What’s Unique About Ukraine and Starlink

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I was pleased to get this email from TPM Reader PT because they hit on a critical part of the Ukraine, Musk, Starlink story. It’s also a key reason why — as we discussed in the previous post — why the Pentagon was a bit slow to grasp the complexities of the situation. The U.S. (and our treaty allies) don’t need Starlink. We have constellations of satellites with secure communications networks for our own military needs. The world’s other major powers do too. But Ukraine isn’t a major military power. So it’s relying on what’s meant to be a civilian network.

As a technical matter it would probably be relatively easy to loop Ukraine into our systems. But that would bring us much closer than we want to go to becoming an active combatant against Russia. It may also be for the security reasons PT alludes to below, ones they’re much more familiar with than I am.

It’s this issue that undergirds the whole controversy and question. But as I noted in my exchange with PT, the distinction between military and civilian here gets quite thin. Starlink is a civilian network — unless you’re one of the vast majority of the world’s countries which don’t have access to secure military satellite networks. It reminds us again that someone like Musk has power that is quite similar to those controlled only by the most powerful states in the world.

From PT

I think that the major issue with Starlink is actually that neither the US nor our treaty allies in Europe and Asia relies on it for national security. When it comes to the national security of the US and its allies, we have several extensive collections of dedicated satellites that we use for secure communications and etc. Because we don’t use or rely on Starlink, we’ve never gotten into a contractual arrangement with SpaceX that would obligate the company to meet requirements set by our military and national security infrastructure.

If the US and our allies wanted to strongly enough, we could presumably share our actual military satellite communications systems with Ukraine. I can only guess why we haven’t done so, but it’s probably some combination of factors related to ensuring that technical details about the systems don’t leak from Ukraine, ground systems for satellite communication aren’t captured, etc. 

It’s exactly because we DON’T use Starlink for our own military that we’re comfortable with Ukraine using it for theirs. But because we don’t use it for our military, because it’s really intended and mainly used as a civilian, commercial communications network, the US government doesn’t attempt to exert any control over the system. In essence, the Ukrainians are using an extremely sophisticated but still civilian, non-classified satellite communication system for their military needs. It’s not a great situation, but it’s not really different from what would happen if they were using, say, AT & T cellular telephone networks to control their drones; they’d be at the mercy of AT & T, the owner of the critical infrastructure for their military needs.

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