Updated Oct 25, 2022 - Science

Elon the self-employed diplomat

Illustration of an outstretched hand with strings on each finger attached to glowing stars hanging below it

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Billionaire businessman Elon Musk is wielding significant geopolitical power with his global internet Starlink satellites.

Why it matters: Private space companies are meeting — and often exceeding — the capabilities of governments, giving not just technological but also geopolitical power to those who operate them.

  • "It's not just states in space making these decisions anymore," Kaitlyn Johnson, a space policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), tells Axios.

Driving the news: Musk this month suggested on Twitter that the U.S. government should start footing the multimillion-dollar bill for the private Starlink service he initiated in Ukraine after Russia cut off internet service. He then pulled back and said the company would continue to cover the cost.

The impact: Musk's moves related to Ukraine show just how much global influence he now wields.

  • Activating Starlink in Ukraine was "a policy decision that the U.S. government didn't make," Johnson says.
  • Starlink is being used by Ukrainian forces for situational awareness on the battlefield and, as Secure World Foundation's Brian Weeden puts it bluntly, is "helping kill a lot of Russians."
  • SpaceX was "trying to strong arm the U.S. government into paying for this service that they chose to send there in the first place," Johnson says.
  • The Pentagon is reportedly considering paying for Starlink's service.

SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.

Between the lines: Years of U.S. policy accelerating and supporting private space companies have led to this moment, where these companies are starting to exceed the government in their capabilities.

  • As a result, the U.S. government has become increasingly reliant on Musk and SpaceX to launch people to the International Space Station and satellites to orbit that underpin military communications and intelligence gathering.
  • "Over time, the list of space activities that only the U.S. government does or that primarily serve the government has really shrunk, and the list of things the commercial sector is doing has grown," says Gregory Allen, a senior fellow in the Strategic Technologies Program at CSIS said. "SpaceX is at the forefront of the trend but by no means is the only one."
  • Space companies are increasingly providing satellite remote sensing and high-bandwidth satellite communications.

The big picture: With more than 3,000 satellites in orbit, Starlink's service stretches around the globe. But there are areas where it is noticeably absent, including Russia, China and Iran.

  • Starlink could technically broadcast to the ground in those counties, but it must be licensed to operate in a country and ground terminals are required to receive the satellite signals.

The intrigue: It’s not clear whether SpaceX hopes to eventually set up Starlink service in China, though experts say there is a clear incentive to do so. "Every time Starlink is going over China, unless they have authority to broadcast, it is not making money," Allen says.

  • Musk told the Financial Times Beijing has asked him for assurances he wouldn't provide internet access in China as he has Ukraine. The FT did not say if he agreed.
  • The Biden administration is exploring setting up Starlink's service in Iran to support protesters there, CNN reported last week, though questions remain about if and how the service could be set up in a country where the government doesn't explicitly authorize it and whether people could then safely use it.

What to watch: As commercial satellites take on more national security and military importance, what could be considered a military target in space is also shifting.

  • The fact that Starlink satellites are being used in wartime could also make the privately operated spacecraft targets for enemy forces, and they're already being targeted with cyberattacks, according to Musk.
  • A Russian official also opened the door to the idea, saying private satellites used for military purposes could be a "legitimate target for retaliation" during a recent UN working group.
  • "If Elon is providing Starlink on his own dime and not reimbursed by the Pentagon, what does it mean for Russia to attack those assets?" Allen added. "If it is paid for by the Pentagon, is attacking [the satellites] equivalent to attacking the U.S.? There are norms of practice developed over the history of the Cold War, but there are areas where norms are being written right now."
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