WASHINGTON — SpaceX’s decision to limit Ukrainian troops’ use of the company’s satellite internet is a cautionary tale for the U.S. military as it grows its reliance on commercial services, the head of U.S. Space Command Gen. James Dickinson told lawmakers March 9.
The issue was raised by Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He questioned SpaceX’s actions to prevent Ukraine’s military from using the company’s Starlink service to control drones in the war against Russia.
The success of Starlink in providing internet services in Ukraine “demonstrates how commercial space capabilities can play a significant role in our modern high intensity conflicts,” said Dickinson.
However, SpaceX’s decision to curtail services highlights the “importance of shared understanding between commercial service providers and their customers and users,” he said.
There has to be clear guidelines laid out upfront when the military uses commercial services during war, Dickinson said. This applies to any type of service, he said, not just those from the space industry.
SpaceX objected to ‘weaponization’
SpaceX’s president Gwynne Shotwell said last month that the company did not intend for Starlink to be “weaponized.”
SpaceX has provided Starlink services in Ukraine at its own expense and through an agreement with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), not under a Defense Department contract.
Kelly said he was “personally disappointed to see discontinuation of full services at such a critical time for Ukraine’s self defense.”
He then asked Dickinson what implications this has for U.S. Space Command as it “deepens its partnership with industry and foreign partners.”
“How are you approaching the agreements with industry on military use of commercial capabilities?” Kelly asked. “And how are we going to ensure that DoD and our partners will have all the capabilities available throughout the range of military operations?”
Dickinson said these questions are being examined under a new commercial space reserve program led by the U.S. Space Force. “They are actually looking at how we make sure during times of conflict that if we’re relying on commercial companies for certain services, that they’ll be available to us.”
The initiative, called Commercial Augmentation Space Reserves, is a timely effort that U.S. Space Command supports, he said. “We need that, especially as we leverage the commercial industry to provide additional capabilities to us.”