Elon Musk and astronaut Scott Kelly debate use of Starlink in Ukraine

US News

Ukrainian forces set up Starlink satellite receivers to provide connection for civilians at Independence Square after the withdrawal of the Russian army from Kherson to the eastern bank of Dnieper River, Ukraine on November 13, 2022.
Metin Atkas | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Ukraine’s use of SpaceX’s satellite internet service remains a crucial yet contentious part of the country’s fragile infrastructure, as Russia’s invasion nears its one-year mark.

Comments by SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell last week reignited the debate around how the company’s Starlink hardware and service should be used in the Ukrainian conflict – leading CEO Elon Musk and high-profile former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly to weigh in.

Kelly on Saturday called on Musk to “restore the full functionality of your Starlink satellites.”

“Defense from a genocidal invasion is not an offensive capability. It’s survival,” argued Kelly, whose twin brother, Mark Kelly, is a Democratic U.S. senator from Arizona.

In a pair of replies on Sunday, Musk tweeted that “Starlink is the communication backbone of Ukraine,” before saying that SpaceX “will not enable escalation of conflict that may lead to WW3.”

“We have not exercised our right to turn them off,” Musk noted in a separate tweet.

The Twitter exchange came after Shotwell last week said that the company has been “really pleased to be able to provide Ukraine connectivity and help them in their fight for freedom,” but she emphasized that Starlink “was never intended to be weaponized.”

“Ukrainians have leveraged it in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement, so we have to work on that at Starlink,” Shotwell said, speaking at a space conference in Washington, D.C on Feb. 8.

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In a roundtable conversation after her remarks, Shotwell said that Ukraine using Starlink as a communications system “for the military is fine.”

“But our intent was never to have them use it for offensive purposes,” Shotwell said.

She specifically noted reports about Ukraine using Starlink “on drones.” Ukrainian soldiers have described using Starlink to connect drones and identify and destroy enemy targets, the Times of London reported in March 2022.

“I’m not going to go into the details; there are things that we can do to limit their ability to do that … there are things that we can do and have done,” Shotwell said.

SpaceX did not respond to CNBC’s request to clarify what those limitations are or whether they are still in place. A company spokesperson pointed to the Starlink terms of service agreement for the U.S., which describes modifications to the SpaceX equipment or service that would be in violation of U.S. export laws.

“Starlink is not designed or intended for use with or in offensive or defensive weaponry or other comparable end-uses,” the Starlink terms of service document for the U.S. says.

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