Space Image

Pentagon and SpaceX Collaborate to Combat Illicit Use of Starlink by Russia

The Pentagon is working closely with SpaceX to identify and disable Starlink satellite internet terminals that have been illegally acquired by Russian forces for use in their invasion of Ukraine

  • More details coming soon...
Zac Aubert

Zac Aubert

Thu May 23 2024Written by Zac Aubert

The Pentagon is working closely with SpaceX to identify and disable Starlink satellite internet terminals that have been illegally acquired by Russian forces for use in their invasion of Ukraine, this was confirmed in a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee by senior U.S. defense officials

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) pressed John Hill, the Pentagon’s deputy chief of space policy, on the cooperation between SpaceX and the U.S. government to ensure that Russian troops do not utilize Starlink terminals obtained through black markets, which would be a direct violation of U.S. sanctions.

Hill reassured lawmakers of SpaceX’s proactive stance, stating that the company, owned by Elon Musk, has been “more than cooperative” in efforts to identify and disable these terminals.

“Not only has SpaceX been very cooperative with the entire United States government and the government of Ukraine, they’ve been forward leaning in identifying and providing information to us,” - John Hill

Senator Warren expressed her concerns regarding reports from Ukrainian forces that Russia has been using SpaceX satellite internet terminals in occupied areas of Ukraine, despite extensive U.S. sanctions aimed at debilitating Russia’s military capabilities. She insisted that the use of Starlink by Russian troops poses a severe threat to Ukraine’s security.

Elon Musk has denied any sales of Starlink terminals to Russia, but lawmakers remain keen on understanding SpaceX’s policies to ensure compliance with sanctions. Warren asked Hill whether the Defense Department could effectively identify and completely shut down all illicit Russian use of Starlink.

Hill acknowledged the ongoing challenge, likening it to a “cat-and-mouse game” as Russia continually acquires new terminals through black market channels just as quickly as the existing ones are turned off. “I think we can continue to identify them or turn them off but I think Russia will not stop” trying to obtain more terminals illicitly, he said.

Warren suggested that future contracts between the Pentagon and SpaceX should include stringent requirements to prevent Russia’s unauthorized use of the satellite internet network. Hill responded that such operational details are better suited for a private briefing due to the sensitive nature of the capabilities involved.

This exchange underscored the critical role of Starlink’s satellite internet, which has been essential for Ukraine’s command-and-control and intelligence operations.

“Russia’s outdated communications have been a major contributor to their failures in Ukraine. Starlink obviously would be enormously valuable to the Russians. It would provide Russia with secure communications that they sorely need, which would significantly erode Ukraine’s advantage on the battlefield.” - Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Hill confirmed that much of the intelligence regarding Russia’s use of Starlink has been shared by SpaceX through U.S. Space Command’s “Commercial Integration Cell,” a collaboration of commercial satellite companies with the U.S. government. “We share information, including company proprietary information and classified information,” Hill explained. “As we share information, we can develop strategies to identify all the terminals which should be left on or which ones should be turned off.”

The ongoing cooperation between the Pentagon and SpaceX is crucial in maintaining the technological edge in the conflict and preventing the misuse of advanced communications technologies by adversarial forces.