WASHINGTON — SpaceX’s president said that Ukraine used Starlink services provided to the country for offensive purposes in its war against Russia, an application the company didn’t intend to support when it enabled service in the country.
Speaking at the Federal Aviation Administration Commercial Space Transportation Conference here Feb. 8, Gwynne Shotwell described Ukraine’s use of the Starlink broadband satellite communication system for weapons systems like drones as an “unintentional” effect of donating services and terminals to the country after Russia’s invasion nearly a year ago.
“We were really pleased to be able to provide Ukraine connectivity and help them in their fight for freedom,” she said. “It was never intended to be weaponized, but the Ukrainians have leveraged it in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement.”
She didn’t elaborate in the conference talk on how Ukraine had weaponized Starlink. In a later conversation with reporters, though, she referred to reports that the Ukrainian military was using Starlink to control drones used in attacks on Russian forces.
SpaceX was providing Ukraine with Starlink services, she said, for humanitarian applications. Even some generic military communications were also acceptable. “We know the military is using them for comms and that’s OK. But our intent was never to have them use it for offensive purposes.”
A general commercial agreement, like one any Starlink user signs, limits its use for offensive purposes, she said, but acknowledged SpaceX had not given the issue of how it might be used much thought when it started providing Starlink to Ukraine shortly after the invasion. “We didn’t think about it. I didn’t think about it,” she said. “But we learned pretty quickly.”
Shotwell said SpaceX has since taken steps to limit Starlink’s use in supporting offensive military operations. “There are things that we can do to limit their ability to do that,” she said, declining to elaborate. “There are things that we can do and have done.”
Last fall, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk raised the possibility of ending the company’s donations of Starlink services to Ukraine, citing the financial burden on the company, unless the Defense Department stepped in to cover those costs. Musk then backtracked, saying the company would continue offering the service “even though Starlink is still losing money and other companies are getting billions.”
Shotwell told reporters she led efforts to get Pentagon funding for Starlink services in Ukraine. “I was the one that asked the Pentagon to fund this. It was not an Elon thing,” she said. “We stopped interacting with the Pentagon on the existing capability.”
While Musk said in October that Starlink was losing money, Shotwell offered a more upbeat assessment. “This year Starlink will make money,” she said, noting that the company’s Falcon launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft, and other unspecified work, already makes money.
“We actually had a cashflow positive quarter last year, excluding launch. This year, they’re paying for their own launches, and they will still make money,” she said.
She said cash flow from operations pays for development, supplemented as needed by outside investment. Tackling both Starlink and the Starship launch vehicle at the same time, she argued, drives that need for outside investment.
“If we had done Starlink and then Starship, or Starship and then Starlink, we probably could have funded them through customer contracts and revenue from Falcon and Dragon. But you do both of them at the same time it’s a lot of money every year.”