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Questions Raised by Elon Musk’s Refusal to Allow Starlink to Aid Ukraine in Crimea Conflict

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s decision to deny Ukraine access to Starlink internet services during the conflict in Crimea has sparked discussions about clarifying the terms of future contracts involving military capabilities. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall expressed the need for explicit provisions stating that purchased services or products may be employed in warfare.

An excerpt from a newly published biography by The Washington Post revealed that in September 2022, Ukraine had requested Starlink support to launch an attack on Russian naval vessels in Crimea’s Sevastopol port. Musk declined the request due to concerns over Russia’s potential nuclear response. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and claims it as part of its territory.

When Musk refused the request, he was not under a military contract. However, in the months following the refusal, the US military officially contracted Starlink for continued support, while the terms and cost of the contract remain undisclosed for operational security reasons.

Despite the military’s reliance on SpaceX for more than just the Ukraine response, the uncertainty surrounding the potential refusal of commercial vendors to provide services during a future conflict has prompted military planners to consider explicitly laying out requirements in future agreements. Kendall emphasized the need to ensure availability of commercial systems and architectures when used operationally during wartime, rather than relying on them solely as a convenience and cost-saving measure during peacetime.

SpaceX is also contracted to assist the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command in developing a rocket ship capable of swiftly transporting military cargo to conflict zones or disaster-stricken areas, potentially reducing the military’s dependence on slower aircraft and ships. Gen. Mike Minihan of the Air Mobility Command stressed the importance of American industry understanding the full range of uses for its technologies.

As US military investments in space continue to grow, concerns about liability protection for commercial vendors and the military’s obligation to defend their assets, such as satellites or ground stations, if they provide military support during a conflict have been raised.

Prior to Musk’s refusal in Ukraine, the need for language explicitly stating that military support providers must agree to their support being utilized in combat had not been a focal point of discussions.

Andrew Hunter, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, emphasized that when acquiring technology, services, or platforms for the Air Force’s purposes, including support for combat operations when necessary, it is expected that they will be utilized accordingly.

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