Drones, Artillery and Connectivity

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In a way we’ve gone down a bit of a rabbit hole in our recent discussions of Starlink, Elon Musk and Ukraine. But it’s a fascinating one and – unlike a rabbit hole proper, which is judged to be beguiling yet ultimately pointless – it actually connects up with many of the most critical issues of our time. TPM Reader VN followed up with more about Starlink and its very real military applications even for the United States. The subject matter gets dense and sometimes technical below. But it’s worth following along. Because it touches on some really big, big issues.

As noted in the last few emails, Ukraine doesn’t have an advanced network of military telecommunications satellites. So access to Starlink is critical for them. But there are things Starlink can do that even our super advanced military systems can’t. The devices are smaller and handier. The bandwidth potential to individual operators on the ground is higher. In a way it’s analogous to what many of us remember at the dawn of the PC Age 30 and 40 years ago. IBM and the other big legacy computer manufacturers had bigger (literally) and far more powerful machines than the Apple IIs and IBM PCs you could buy for your home or work. But those comparatively tiny computers a regular person could buy were actually pretty powerful. And they got more powerful very quickly. They were also small. They could be networked together. The parts were modular. So if you knew some of the basics you could build new and more powerful machines from off the shelf parts. The boy geniuses like Jobs, Wozniak and Gates were always highly dependent on the core hardware being produced or brought to market by the big legacy companies. But they and others were also creating a revolution in utility if not always core technology that was something genuinely new and transformative.

This is a rough analogy. But if you read VN‘s note below you can see something analogous in what Starlink is bringing to market today. It’s not that the Pentagon or the big US defense contractors are behind in core technology. But in Ukraine and likely in future conflicts the US might participate in directly, if you’re a group of soldiers operating on the ground what Starlink has might actually be more useful to you in many cases. Starlink also has the costs way, way down.

This brings us to a much broader issue. The US is a big, big legacy power which hasn’t fought in a hot, existential conflict in going on a century. (1945 was 78 years ago.) The US is down to a small handful of defense contractors. The highest ranks of the officer corps routinely retire into big paychecks working either directly or indirectly for those companies. New weapons systems can take decades to bring to market and cost overruns are as commonplace as a blue sky. Note in VN’s comments the differences in costs to putting satellites into orbit between the legacy US contractors and SpaceX. I am not able to fact check every claim in reader emails. But I know the differences are huge. This is why people in the aerospace world, even ones who despise Musk, marvel at SpaceX. The costs of putting satellites into orbit is super cheap, the rockets are reusable and they launch routinely and reliably.

I was raised by a man for whom science was like a religion and manned space flight its most inspiring marvel. The shuttle program was a huge thing in my childhood. In retrospect, painful as it is for me to say it, it was clearly a poorly engineered, massive boondoggle. Catastrophic accidents destroyed two of the five space-worthy shuttles. The always weird and dubious system of floppy heat shield tiles which blew off routinely finally brought one of them down, killing all aboard. How different are some of the massive tech marvels our modern military is based on?

Remember the USS Cole attack in October 2000? A suicide crew with explosives on a small tender craft crippled a guided missile destroyer refueling in Yemen. That was a unique set of circumstances which relied less on technology than something being unexpected. But the US has a lot of big, expensive military hardware that could be very vulnerable to cheap missiles in a warzone. Think of the big US carrier groups that patrol the global ocean.

Nimitz and Ford class aircraft carriers are clearly much more robust and functional than the shuttles. But we’ve only really seen them operate in peace time, certainly not against anything that could be considered a rival power.

I’ve thrown a lot of different issues at you. But I do that just to give you a sense of the meta questions to think about while reading VN‘s latest email. The role of off the shelf civilian drones in the Ukraine war captures the way that the conflict has revealed a bleeding edge between great power military technology and civilian technology that can sometimes match it, at least in limited but sometimes quite significant situations. This is part of the larger story of the global oligarchs, their hold on some of the commanding heights of the global technology economy and the role of states they sometimes imitate and overwhelm.

Now from VN

I was going to follow-up/respond to Reader PT who suggested that the US military didn’t think about contracting Starlink because they already have their own satellites, as not exactly correct, but Reader JS beat me to it and he is totally spot on. Starlink allows for much more data throughput than anything that has ever existed before and is literally supporting tens of thousands of soldiers and systems simultaneously. Current US military satellites constellations can’t offer streaming video, and certainly nothing with the low latency needed for real-time combat. From what we are seeing in Ukraine, the future of warfare looks like a lot of networked drones and other weapons systems that are controlled by humans and/or AI and that require a massive increase in data throughput . Not only that, the technology that SpaceX uses is best of breed in terms of the ground terminals on the ground and the satellites that they are launching in being military grade and being able to withstand hacking by state actors like Russia. Their latest version 2 satellites can network with each other via laser and they are just miles ahead of everyone else out there. In fact, the war in Ukraine has proved out SpaceX tech to the point that they released their Starshield service last December which is explicitly for military use. Starshield was unexpected and I am pretty certain that it was simply due to the proven success in Ukraine that they realized that they had a new business line. 

The main underlying issue for the US military is that the current group of legacy Space and Defense contractors have taken the US government for a huge ride. The Space Launch System (SLS) that is supposed to launch missions to the moon and beyond for the Artemis program, is years late and has billions and billions of cost overruns. Each Artemis launch will cost $4+ Billion and overall expected costs will be 40B+ which is tens of billions more than expected. They are using existing rocket engine designs that were used for Space Shuttles and for some reason will cost $100+ Million per engine and there will be dozens of engines for these missions. Also note that these rockets are not reusable and, I repeat, $4B+ per launch for Artemis missions. Compare that to SpaceX who is trying to get their engine costs to less than $1M per engine and the rockets are proven to be reusable. Legacy launch providers were charging tens of thousands of dollars per kg to orbit (some launches cost NASA $100K/kg to $1M/kg) while SpaceX is expecting that their huge Starship spaceship will bring it down to $50 kg (fifty dollars, not a typo!). It’s almost comical what SpaceX is doing to the legacy space companies and it is in turn showing how almost criminal they have been behaving in fleecing the American public over the years. That’s why the government and the military have no choice but to go with Musk and SpaceX for the foreseeable future. No one else can build reusable rockets, human spacecraft, satellites, satellite receivers and combine all that with the software that ties it all together in a low-cost package that is also the best of breed. This is some sort of system-wide failure that needs to be studied on why the US and its allies need to rely on a mercurial and obviously emotionally unstable character as Musk, without any sort of obvious alternative. There quite literally is no one else to turn to. You can say that both the government and private markets have failed.

By the way, speaking of sketchy right wing techno-moguls, have you seen the stuff that the former Oculus founder, Palmer Lucky, is building now with his new company Anduril? He’s developing AI powered autonomous drones & weapons systems and he is much like Musk in that he’s taking on the old guard dinosaurs with new strategies and it looks like he’ll be successful because the legacy military competition is fat and corrupt like the legacy space industry, plus he is legitimately a brilliant person and after selling Oculus he has the money to build his company. But he doesn’t seem to be as emotionally or mentally needy and volatile like Musk. Having said that, his sister married Matt Gaetz but I suppose you can’t judge a man by his sister. Still, let’s hope that bad judgement isn’t genetic because AI-powered autonomous killer robots is kind of scary and he is backed by Thiel and his feral ilk as well (btw “feral” is my favorite term of yours that I am totally lifting in describing some of the kooks out there).

TPMers may remember that Lucky got into the political world early. Just a couple years after selling Oculus to Facebook he launched a political outfit dedicated to circulating edgelord memes against Hillary Clinton on behalf of Donald Trump.

So, really maybe not so different from Musk after all.

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