Pentagon working with SpaceX to cut off Russian military’s illicit use of Starlink internet

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun17,2024

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is coordinating with SpaceX to identify and disable Starlink satellite internet terminals that have been illicitly acquired by Russian forces for use in their invasion of Ukraine, a senior U.S. defense official told Congress.

During a May 21 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) pressed John Hill, the Pentagon’s deputy chief of space policy, on whether SpaceX has been cooperating to ensure Russian troops do not operate Starlink terminals obtained from black markets in violation of U.S. sanctions.

Hill said SpaceX, which is owned by Elon Musk, has been “more than cooperative” and “forward leaning” in working to identify terminals in Russian hands and turn them off.

“Not only has SpaceX been very cooperative with the entire United States government and the government of Ukraine, they’ve been forward leaning in identifying and providing information to us,” Hill told lawmakers.

Warren said it has been “concerning” that Ukrainian forces have reported Russia obtaining and using the SpaceX satellite internet terminals in occupied areas of Ukraine, despite sweeping U.S. sanctions aimed at crippling Russia’s military capabilities. 

Musk denied selling terminals to Russia, but lawmakers want to know SpaceX’s policies for complying with sanctions.

The Massachusetts senator insisted that the use of Starlink internet services by Russian troops “poses a serious threat to Ukraine.”

Warren asked Hill whether the Defense Department can identify all illicit Russian use of Starlink and completely shut down that capability.

Cat-and-mouse game

While the U.S. government and SpaceX have had some success working together to cut off identified terminals being used by Russian forces, Hill acknowledged it is an endless cat-and-mouse game because Russia keeps acquiring more terminals through black market channels as quickly as existing ones are turned off.

“I think we can continue to identify them or turn them off but I think Russia will not stop” trying to obtain more terminals illicitly, Hill said.

Warren questioned whether the Pentagon’s next contract for Starlink services should specify requirements for SpaceX to prevent Russia’s illicit use of the satellite internet network.

Hill said those operational details would be better addressed through a private briefing rather than in an open congressional hearing, citing the sensitive nature of the capabilities involved.

The back-and-forth highlighted the role of Starlink’s satellite internet, which can connect from anywhere on the battlefield. It has been crucial for Ukraine’s command-and-control and intelligence sharing. 

“Russia’s outdated communications have been a major contributor to their failures in Ukraine,” Warren said. “Starlink obviously would be enormously valuable to the Russians. It would provide Russia with secure communications that they sorely need, which would significantly erode Ukraine’s advantage on the battlefield.”

Hill said a lot of the information about Russia’s use of Starlink has been shared by SpaceX via U.S. Space Command’s “commercial Integration cell,” a group of commercial satellite companies that work with the U.S. government. “We share information, including company proprietary information and classified information,” said Hill. “As we share information, we can develop strategies to identify all the terminals which should be left on or which ones should be turned off.” 

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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One thought on “Pentagon working with SpaceX to cut off Russian military’s illicit use of Starlink internet”
  1. It is alarming to see how Russian forces have managed to exploit Starlink internet technology acquired through illicit means. I commend SpaceX for their cooperation in identifying and disabling these terminals in Russian hands, ultimately working to support Ukraine’s security.

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