Sunday Feb 19, 2023
WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Saturday that the US government has had conversations with Elon Musk about the use of Starlink satellite internet in Ukraine.
SpaceX this month said it has taken steps to prevent Ukraine's military from using the company's Starlink service for controlling drones in the region during the country's war with Russia.
Asked during an interview with NBC News' "Meet the Press with Chuck Todd" that will air on Sunday whether the United States had asked Musk, the company's chief executive, not to restrict the use of Starlink capabilities by Ukraine's military, Blinken said: "Well, I can't share any conversations we've had other than to say we've had conversations."
SpaceX has privately shipped truckloads of Starlink terminals to Ukraine, allowing the country's military to communicate by plugging them in and connecting them with the nearly 4,000 satellites SpaceX has so far launched into low-Earth orbit.
Russia has attempted to jam Starlink signals in the region, though SpaceX countered by hardening the service's software, Musk has said.
SpaceX's Starlink satellite internet service was "never ever meant to be weaponised," Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX's president and chief operating officer, had said during a conference in Washington, DC on February 9.
"However, Ukrainians have leveraged it in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement," she said.
Speaking later with reporters, Shotwell referred to reports that the Ukrainian military had used the Starlink service to control drones.
Ukraine has made effective use of unmanned aircraft for spotting enemy positions, targeting long-range fires and dropping bombs.
"There are things that we can do to limit their ability to do that," she said, referring to Starlink's use with drones. "There are things that we can do, and have done."
Using Starlink with drones went beyond the scope of an agreement SpaceX has with the Ukrainian government, Shotwell said, adding the contract was intended for humanitarian purposes such as providing broadband internet to hospitals, banks and families affected by Russia's invasion.
"We know the military is using them for comms, and that's ok," she said. "But our intent was never to have them use it for offensive purposes."
Asked if SpaceX had anticipated Starlink's use for offensive purposes in Ukraine when deciding to ship terminals into conflict zones, Shotwell said: "We didn't think about it. I didn't think about it. Our Starlink team may have, I don't know. But we learned pretty quickly."
Starlink had suffered services outages in Ukraine late last year, for reasons SpaceX did not explain.
Asked if those outages were related to SpaceX’s efforts to curb offensive use of Starlink, Shotwell said: “I don’t want to answer it because I’m not sure I know the answer.”