I have been so pleased by the way TPM Readers have allowed me to expand on the complexities of the Musk/Ukraine/Starlink question. As TPM Reader JS explains, it’s actually not true that the US military doesn’t need Starlink or isn’t using it. It’s true that the US military has a whole system of secure satellite communications. The US wouldn’t have found itself in the situation the Ukrainian military did when Musk blocked the use of his satellites over the Crimean coastline. But that’s not the whole story.
JS’s discussion hints at a separate but fascinating issue of how the Ukraine War has shown the value of various off the shelf technologies in modern wars and potential vulnerabilities of great powers with their big expansive weapons systems against canny and comparatively weak but agile adversaries. The best example of this is the widespread use of off-the-shelf consumer drones in the conflict. But let’s go back to Starlink.
From TPM Reader JS …
I wanted to make a comment regarding the post you made with the response from PT. I think that his take that the US military is not using Starlink is not correct. It just takes the government, and especially the military, some time to get contract vehicles that enable organizations to purchase equipment and services. It was only recently that the US military had a contract vehicle to get at Starlink (at least for normal military units). I will say that in my experience (~around 20 years in military tactical communications), there is about to be a lot more use of Starlink in the military. They just haven’t used it because they couldn’t get at it until now.
It is true that the military has their own SatCom, everything I’m aware of is in Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) . Quite a bit of the Commercial SatCom used by the military up until this point has been in a Geo orbit rather than a Medium or Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The reason for moving to ComSatCom LEO capabilities is the dramatic increase in bandwidth and speed. The speed and latency of GEO SatCom is closer to 10Mbps and 500ms round trip times compared to LEO at 220Mbps and up to 60ms round trip. The other benefit is that the terminal needed for LEO is a whole lot smaller and more agile than for GEO. With the increased requirements for data in the tactical military space, just as we are all seeing in the conflict in Ukraine, it makes sense for the military to move to the most available LEO capability out there.
I know that this is a bit tangential to the original conversation about Elon and Ukraine, but I do think it’s an important thing to note that the US military would like to use Starlink as much as they are in Ukraine, we just haven’t had a method to get at it contractually. I do worry about what the effect would be if a conflict that the US gets into is adversarial to Elon Musk’s financial interests.