Senate to investigate reports of Musk cutting off Starlink to Ukraine

September 15, 2023

Senate Armed Service Committee Chair Jack Reed (D-RI) on Thursday said he plans to open an investigation into reports SpaceX CEO Elon Musk blocked Ukraine’s access to Starlink internet services last year, thwarting a major attack on the Russian fleet.  

The committee said in a statement that Reed decided to take action “following public reports about the use of the Starlink system in Ukraine.”

Reports about the incident first emerged earlier this month when CNN published excerpts of a soon-to-be released biography of Musk, which claims that the billionaire secretly ordered his engineers to shut off his Starlink satellite network over Russian-occupied Crimea last year in order to prevent a Ukrainian drone from attacking Russian ships. 

Biographer Walter Isaacson reportedly writes in his upcoming book that Ukrainian officials had begged Musk to turn the satellites back on. But Musk feared—following conversations with Russian officials—that Moscow would respond to a Ukrainian strike with nuclear weapons. 

“How am I in this war?” Musk asked Isaacson during an interview. “Starlink was not meant to be involved in wars. It was so people can watch Netflix and chill and get online for school and do good peaceful things, not drone strikes.”

Following the reporting, Isaacson wrote on Musk’s social media platform X, formerly Twitter, “To clarify on the Starlink issue: the Ukrainians THOUGHT coverage was enabled all the way to Crimea, but it was not. They asked Musk to enable it for their drone sub attack on the Russian fleet. Musk did not enable it.”

Three Democratic Senators on the Armed Services Committee—Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois—sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Friday asking him to clarify what actually occurred during the incident in question.

“The differing versions of events further highlights the confusion surrounding the circumstances of this reported incident,” they wrote. “The confusion over what actually happened during this Ukrainian attack—and Mr. Musk’s specific role—demands answers.”

Starlink’s role in Ukraine was brought up in Senate Armed Services Committee at least as early as March when, during a military space hearing, Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) criticized SpaceX for the “discontinuation of full services at such a critical time for Ukraine’s self defense.”

While Chairman Reed has pointed out that SpaceX—which received $2.8 billion in U.S. government contracts last year, and a total of $15.3 billion in government funding since 2003—has advanced U.S. interests in space by lowering the costs, he points out in the Senate committee’s statement that “neither Elon Musk, nor any private citizen, can have the last word when it comes to U.S. national security.”

“We’ve got to look at the broader satellite markets and the role of government outsourcing, the outsize role Mr. Musk and his company have taken on here, and the Pentagon’s actions and contractual arrangements,” Reed added.

PHOTO: Starlink space mission 2019

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