A number of military leaders around the world have expressed concerns to US officials over the dominance and control of SpaceX founder Elon Musk over satellite internet, according to a new report.
Over the past decade Musk's SpaceX has changed the launch industry with its reusable Falcon 9 rocket. The company has pressed this advantage to establish itself as the leading player in satellite internet through Starlink.
There are currently more than 4,500 Starlink satellites in orbit, accounting for more than half of all active satellites. The constellation may grow to as many as 42,000 satellites in orbit. The significance and potential of SpaceX's Starlink, a low Earth orbit satellite internet constellation, gained widespread attention in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with the system playing a role to provide vital communications to Ukraine in the wake of damaged infrastructure and jammed geostationary satellite signals.
However, the leader of Ukraine's Armed Forces, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, has raised the topic of Starlink with the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to a New York Times report. Little regulation and oversight exists over the operation of Starlink, generating concerns over how Musk will exercise his authority over the system, which includes the power to cut off access.
Ukraine's battlefield decisions depended on the continued use of Starlink for communications, according to Zaluzhnyi. But Musk had on multiple occasions restricted access to Starlink multiple times during the war, the report said, citing people familiar with the situation.
Restrictions have been implemented through a process called geofencing. Starlink access has also fluctuated based on the movements of the war as Russia won territory and Ukraine fought to take it back, according to the report. Musk also refused Ukraine's request last year to provide Starlink access near Crimea.
Ukrainian officials have approached other potential supplies to offset over-dependence on Starlink, according to the New York Times, though they acknowledged none rival Starlink's reach.
In addition to Ukraine, "at least nine countries — including in Europe and the Middle East — have also brought up Starlink with American officials over the past 18 months, with some questioning Mr. Musk's power over the technology, two U.S. intelligence officials briefed on the discussions said," the report states.
Taiwan has also voiced concern. The report cites a former Taiwanese legislator stating there were "tremendous concerns" about Musk.
"We worry that if we order devices from Starlink, we'll fall into some sort of trap" said Jason Hsu, now a senior research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School in Taipei. Hsu saw Musk as having financial interests tied to China through the manufacture of Tesla cars in Shanghai.
China has also expressed concerns over the uses of Starlink, with Beijing complaining its crewed Tianhe space station module needed to maneuver to avoid Starlink satellites in 2021. Separate reports note that SpaceX satellites have been forced to move over 50,000 times to prevent collisions since 2019.
China has also stated its belief that Starlink is intended for military purposes, citing its use in Ukraine. The country aims to construct its own low Earth orbit communications megaconstellation.
OneWeb and Amazon, through its Kuiper constellation plan, aim to compete with Starlink, but Starlink remains the leader in low Earth orbit.