A trail of a group of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites passing over Uruguay. (Photo by Mariana SUAREZ / AFP) (Photo by MARIANA SUAREZ/AFP via Getty Images)

SPACE SYMPOSIUM 2024 — The Pentagon is working with private space giant SpaceX and the Ukrainian government to stop Russian forces from using the company’s satellite communications terminals in Moscow’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, according to a top DoD official. 

“Starlink is a commercial product. It’s available on the commercial market. Of course, companies, countries all over the world — certainly Russia has no problem trying to buy things through the black market,” John Plumb, the assistant secretary of defense for space policy, told reporters at the Space Symposium conference in Colorado Springs today. 

“Just the idea of this being more available and so people can find it and try to exploit it, that’s something we just have to bake in and understand,” he added of commercial services like those provided by SpaceX. “And make no mistake, the reason it’s this thing [Starlink] is because it’s so effective.” 

Plumb’s comments come amid a spate of reports revealing that Russian forces have successfully captured or acquired SpaceX’s Starlink terminals, which provide communications and other command and control functions by means of a low earth orbit satellite constellation. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Russia and other actors, specifically paramilitary forces in Sudan, have successfully acquired Starlink terminals from the black market and used them for military purposes. And despite pleas from officials for SpaceX to intervene, many of those terminals are still active, officials have reportedly said. 

“… I don’t know if the right word is illegally,” Plumb said of Russia’s exploitation of SpaceX terminals, “but certainly without licenses and certainly not at the behest of the country in which they are invading, for goodness sake.” 

Asked whether DoD would mandate SpaceX to create a list of approved terminals for use in occupied Ukraine — an apparent desire of Kyiv — Plumb said he didn’t believe DoD has the authority.

“First of all, I don’t think the DoD is in a position to make them do these things,” he said. “I’m aware of Ukraine’s concerns, [and] working through it with both Ukraine and Starlink.”

SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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The Starlink issue highlights a tricky dilemma for actors like the Pentagon, who are heavily reliant on commercial technologies that have leapt ahead of government capabilities in providing space services. That’s particularly true of SpaceX, a leader in space launch through rockets like the company’s Falcon 9 and satellite communications services via Starlink, an issue further complicated by the ownership of eccentric billionaire Elon Musk

SpaceX’s Starshield satellite business, which is similar to Starlink but adapted for government requirements, is currently contracted with the Pentagon and seen as a key capability for military users. SpaceX has also reportedly inked a $1.8 billion contract with the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) for Starshield satellites. NRO plans to launch satellites next month but declined to say who made them.

Asked whether SpaceX has taken the necessary steps to prevent Starlink’s exploitation, Plumb emphasized the DoD’s relationship with the company. 

“I think they’re a great partner,” he said.