SpaceX limits Ukraine’s ability to use Starlink to operate drones

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SpaceX has restricted Ukraine’s ability to use its satellite internet service, Starlink to control its military drones. 

Since the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, SpaceX has been shipping Starlink terminals to Ukraine to provide internet access to the citizens and the military of the war-torn country. SpaceX operates a constellation of almost 4,000 low-Earth orbit satellites. 

However, Elon Musk’s company now raises concerns that Starlink is being used for applications that were never intended, such as controlling drones employed in Ukraine’s fight against Russia. These drones conduct missions ranging from observation to weapon targeting and even dropping explosives. 

According to SpaceX’s president Gwynne Shotwell, the US company and the Ukrainian government agreed to only use Starlink for humanitarian applications, helping hospitals and citizens affected by the war to maintain access to the internet. 

Voicing concerns over the weaponization of its services, Shotwell announced on February 8, 2023, that the use of Starlink by the Ukrainian military was somehow limited. 

“Ukrainians have leveraged [Starlink] in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement,” Shotwell told reporters, as reported by Reuters. “Our intent was never to have them use it for offensive purposes.” 

“To limit their ability to do that […] there are things that we can do and have done,” SpaceX’s president revealed. 

The exact measures taken by SpaceX were not specified. However, it could have dramatic consequences for the Ukrainian military, which is expecting a Russian offensive in Bakhmut, opening access toward the cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. 

Is SpaceX having second thoughts?

Though never acknowledged by SpaceX, the Ukrainian military admitted to using the technology since the very early days of its deployment in Ukraine. Several charities and crowdfunding initiatives have bought and shipped Starlink terminals specifically to support Ukrainian soldiers. In January 2023, the Polish government reported having provided Ukraine with 7,990 Starlink terminals.

In retaliation, Russia threatened to target Western commercial satellites if they were to aid the Ukrainian war effort. Coincidentally, the Russian military successfully carried out an Anti-Satellite Weapon (ASAT) test in November 2021, a few months before its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. 

It is not the first time that SpaceX has reassessed the service it provides to Ukraine. In October 2022, documents seen by CNN showed that SpaceX requested the US Department of Defense to fund Ukraine’s use of Starlink.   

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