On September 8, it was unearthed that Elon Musk, private owner of X (formerly known as Twitter) and CEO of Tesla and Space-X, denied the Ukrainian Military access to the Space-X Starlink satellite network to attack Russian warships in Crimea last year.
Musk’s role in military decision-making, released within an excerpt of Musk’s eagerly-awaited biography, raised alarms for major news organizations and the U.S. government as a whole. However, it shouldn’t be surprising that Musk effectively thwarted a Ukrainian attack.
Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, it was clear that the country’s reliance on Musk’s satellites created an unstable scenario. The Starlink satellite system was originally intended for civilian use; in fact, over 60 countries rely on Starlink for these cellular services. While it’s normal for militaries to outsource arms production to civilian contractors, what makes Musk’s case different is that Starlink is a civilian product. Musk owns a series of global companies, and so he views the entire world as his market, with all its civilians being potential customers. With this information in mind, the risks behind leaving decisions up to Musk should become more apparent: with interconnected global businesses to run, he does not wish to offend other potential customers, such as Russia. So yes, he’ll aid Ukraine, and take the credit for doing so, but won’t pledge his unconditional support.
Perhaps a better way to describe the situation could be through the words of NBA legend Michael Jordan when asked about his political views: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
Musk’s ability to remotely control Ukrainian access to his Starlink system consolidates a great deal of military power into one individual whose motives are at best opaque. This reality illustrates that government reliance on private companies can damage military efficiency.
But this reality is hardly new: as a matter of fact, the world was cautioned about this problem over 60 years ago. In his farewell address in 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the United States of the “military-industrial complex (MIC)”—a term that simply refers to the relationship between a country’s military and the defense contractors that supply it. The main issue with the MIC, according to Eisenhower, is that while a military depends on contractors to provide materiel, contractors often don’t rely on the military, especially companies like Space-X, which serves a larger civilian consumer-base.
Furthermore, globalization has added another layer of complexity Eisenhower could never have predicted, as the biggest companies now look further beyond their national borders for growth and profit. Circling back to Starlink and Ukraine, Musk’s goal to serve Ukraine only when it serves his broader interests is the perfect example of this. So perhaps the best solution to the MIC would be to increase government intervention in the private sector and require civilian companies to provide governments with services when needed. However, while this could be a solution, it’s not the right one.
Private companies should not be obliged to provide governments, especially militaries, with their services. This wrongfully pulls businesses directly into governmental affairs, resembles authoritarianism, and could cheat companies out of profits. Globally-focused companies view the entire world as their market. Why should they be forced to pick sides and get political?
Looking at the time since he delivered his farewell address, Eisenhower would have been horrified to learn that the United States has failed to move away from relying on private contractors for military weapons and supplies. In a study conducted by Brown University, it was uncovered that in the wars fought post-9/11, nearly half of U.S. defense spending went into the pockets of private contractors, which provided the American military with field equipment, infrastructure, and technology. Furthermore, the study concluded that payments to private contractors have risen more than 164 percent since 2001. Bringing back the attention to Ukraine, Mykhailo Federov, Ukraine’s digital minister, proclaimed in an interview, “Starlink is indeed the blood of our entire communication system.” Unfortunately for Federov, Musk can and has cut off that lifeline at his personal discretion.
The broader lesson, which Eisenhower argued for decades ago, but hopefully now is being taken into greater consideration, is that governments must depend less on private, potentially conflicted contractors and instead take matters of national security under their own control.