Streetwise Professor

September 11, 2023

So, You Really Want Elon Musk Unilaterally Making US War Policy?

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia,Ukraine — cpirrong @ 12:38 pm

Elon Musk is taking a lot of heat from the Ukraine Amen Corner over his decision not to extend Starlink internet service to cover Crimea–Sevastopol in particular–because of fears that Ukraine would launch an attack on the Russian fleet based there, and this would spur a massive retaliation by Russia. Musk has claimed in particular that he feared the possibility of a nuclear retaliation.

There are conflicting stories. The one is that SpaceX turned off Starlink coverage to Crimea precisely when Ukrainian submersible drones were inbound. Denied navigational assistance and control provided by the satellites, the drones went stupid and the attack failed. The other–which Musk laid out himself on X–is that Starlink did not cover Crimea, the Ukrainians asked him to activate its coverage there, and he declined.

The second story is more plausible than the first. How would Musk know that an attack was on its way? And there has been no evidence of any such attack: in more recent drone strikes, the Russians have provided images of beached drones and video of drones being sunk by Russian gunfire.

The umbrage from the usual quarters–illustrated by the rant from Jake Tapper–is over the top, as is the response by Ukrainian official Mykhailo Podolyak: “By not allowing Ukrainian drones to destroy part of the Russian military (!) fleet via #Starlink interference, @elonmusk allowed this fleet to fire Kalibr missiles at Ukrainian cities.”

For one thing, this assumes that the drone strike would have inflicted devastating damage on the fleet. Subsequent strikes (guided how?) have inflicted some damage, but have hardly posed a major threat to the striking power of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

For another, since when is an American company obligated to make its resources available to a foreign country to commit an act of war against a nation with which the US is not at war, and which has the world’s largest force of nukes to boot? Indeed, do we want CEOs making those kind of choices, given that especially when dealing with someone like Putin the target would immediately attribute responsibility to the United States? Such would be a major national security policy decision and should be made by those Constitutionally responsible–although given the current government, they may not be constitutionally fitted. But even given the dubious judgment of the current administration, it is they who should be making such decisions, not corporate CEOs.

If anything, it should go the other way. Companies should be prohibited from making such clearly belligerent moves on their own hook.

Indeed, note that US law requires approval of arms sales by US companies:

The FMS sales process begins when a country submits a formal Letter of Request (LOR). Ideally, this includes both a desired military capability, and a rough estimate of what the partner is able to spend.  Sales are approved following U.S. government review and, when required, after Congressional notification. After the sale is approved, the DSCA issues a Letter of Offer and Acceptance (LOA) specifying the defense articles, training, and support being offered for delivery.  Major FMS sales formally notified to Congress are publicly announced on the DSCA website

Providing an asset complementary to things that blow up–and which are indeed necessary for the use of the things that blow up even if they don’t blow up themselves, as Starlink supposedly was in this instance–should be subject to the same strict scrutiny and approval.

And again ironies and idiocies abound here. Those who consistently condemn Putin as evil and perhaps irrational dismiss Musk’s concerns about nuclear retaliation. Those who routinely attack Musk’s actions–and his management of Twitter in particular–want to delegate war making decisions to him.

Elon making decisions about waging war on Putin. Yeah, nothing unpredictable or frightening about that, right?

It should also be noted that the United States has been extremely circumspect about supplying weapons that Ukraine could use to strike at Russian territory, and at Crimea. The hemming-and-hawing about F-16s is one example, as is the continued reluctance to supply long-range ATACMS missiles. Even approval of main battle tanks–which pose little threat to Russian territory proper–occurred only after much debate and indecision. And for years–even following Russia’s invasion of Donetsk in 2014–the US was incredibly stingy about providing even clearly defensive weapons (like ATGMs) to Ukraine.

Meaning that those who attack Musk for not facilitating Ukrainian offensive capability into Russian- and Russian-claimed territory should really direct their fire at the administration. It’s their call, not Musk’s, and they have been just as cautious–if not more–than Elon.

The utter ingratitude of Ukraine to Musk is truly astounding. He kept Starlink operational over Ukraine for months on his own tab, and it was vital to its military operations. Yet since he doesn’t cater to their every whim–even potentially very ill-considered ones that implicate the United States–they demonize him incessantly. I believe that if Musk was not so dependent on the US government generally, and the security state in particular (especially insofar as SpaceX is concerned) he would tell them to GFY.

I have been very critical of Musk on some things, more favorably disposed on others. Here is a case where he is clearly in the right.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. You don’t really think Elon shut it down on his own correct?

    Comment by OldSarg — September 11, 2023 @ 2:04 pm

  2. The answer is quite simple here.

    Elon Musk is now an enemy of the “Democrat” Party in America. He is being attacked every which way as a reprobate or apostate to the various beliefs of the powers that be today.

    Comment by JavelinaTex — September 12, 2023 @ 5:30 am

  3. My conjecture is that DIA or someone else in the Pentagon warned Musk about what would/might happen and gave him cover for his actions.

    At least, I sincerely hope they did.

    ‘The utter ingratitude of Ukraine to Musk is truly astounding.’

    From what we’ve seen of them, not really.

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — September 12, 2023 @ 6:41 am

  4. Fascinating, isn’t it? This chap, a highly intelligent variant of Barnum and Bailey, is super important because he’s super rich, principally because he has made a fortune from EVs. But they depend on taxpayer subsidies linked to a huge mendacious disinformation campaign about the climate.

    What a strange civilisation The West has become.

    Comment by dearieme — September 12, 2023 @ 9:51 am

  5. Maybe I should add that I have no objection at all to Musk starting his wealth with non-subsided companies. Well done him, even from this non-Paypal household.

    Comment by dearieme — September 12, 2023 @ 9:57 am

  6. Media forgot that they already covered this story back in February. SpaceX CEO gave explanation of why they decided to not allow this.

    Same story was covered by others Like CNN, WaPo

    Comment by Marius — September 12, 2023 @ 3:13 pm

  7. How would marine drone attacks on Sevastopol risk nuclear escalation any more than anything else that has happened so far? What is stopping the Pentagon from supplying its own satcom to these drones? They don’t need thousands of ground terminals like a land army would; drones aren’t that numerous.

    In any case, I don’t think it matters now. The Russians seem to have adapted with countermeasures, which may be as simple as, “If you hear a motorboat, get your AK-47 out.” Maybe all the fuss is finger-pointing about how these drones aren’t getting the easy hits they once did. The Ukrainian shop that built them may have overpromised or not anticipated the Russians, um, shooting back.

    The US has never recognized Russian claims over Crimea, so I wouldn’t think offering Starlink service there would require any approval if the rest of Urkraine doesn’t. If the war develops to a point where raiding Rostov-on-Don is a good way to cut logistical lines to Crimea, that’s another story.

    Comment by M. Rad. — September 13, 2023 @ 3:04 am

  8. Unusually, I can bring some knowledge to one of the Prof’s posts:

    “How would Musk know that an attack was on its way?”
    One of the restrictions that SpaceX puts on Starlink is that it can’t be used when moving (or at least moving above a certain speed) to prevent it from being integrated into a drone (and therefore possibly being declared dual-use military hardware, which would be a huge hit to their business selling to civilians). It follows that knowing the location of the Starlink terminal would probably be relatively easy. In fact, this is probably how they deny service to just Crimea, since blocking that at the antenna of a non-geostationary satellite is probably a total non-starter (at least at any reasonable precision).

    “The utter ingratitude of Ukraine to Musk is truly astounding…they demonize him incessantly”
    I think this is unfair. One Ukranian lawmaker did criticise Musk a while back and was rebuked by his government pretty quickly – the rest of the criticism seems to come from pro-Ukranian Americans with an axe to grind with Musk.

    “Here is a case where he is clearly in the right.”
    The Prof is agreeing with Musk? Somebody check the weather forecast in hell – I hear it might be cold! 😛

    @EGSRLB: “My conjecture is that DIA or someone else in the Pentagon warned Musk about what would/might happen and gave him cover for his action”
    No conjecture required – what has happened is that the DOD has purchased some specific “military” Starlinks, Ukraine has integrated those into drones, and it is the DOD who is now deciding where Starlink can or cannot be used. As should be the case, as the Prof notes.

    Comment by HibernoFrog — September 13, 2023 @ 6:16 am

  9. According to the WSJ, Musk had a conference call with Administration officials prior to disabling Starlink in that instance. And this excerpt from Isaacson’s new biography of Musk gives much more detail (the author had amazing access, following Musk around for two years):

    Comment by SRP — September 13, 2023 @ 11:24 am


    Ukraine said on Monday it had recaptured several offshore drilling rigs in the Black Sea.
    The two-day raid, dubbed “Battle for the Sea,” was part of a special forces operation.
    The platforms were occupied by Russia since 2015 and used for military purposes, according to Ukraine.

    Ukraine says it has successfully retaken control of four gas drilling platforms in the northern Black Sea, close to the Crimean Peninsula.

    Video of the operation, which Ukraine says took place last month, shows special forces removing Russian military equipment.

    Russia seized control of the so-called Boyko Towers in 2015, shortly after it illegally annexed Crimea.

    There has been a battle for control of these strategic waters since last year.

    A video and statement released by Ukraine’s military intelligence, entitled Battle for the Sea, offer a rare glimpse into this sphere of the conflict.

    In the video, which the BBC cannot verify, rigid inflatable boats are seen speeding across the Black Sea, carrying teams of Ukrainian special forces.

    At one point, the boats pass close to Snake Island, also known as Zmiinyi Island, which was captured by Russia on the first day of its full-scale invasion last year and recaptured four months later.

    Troops are then seen clambering onto one of the platforms and removing Russian supplies, as well as vital radar equipment.

    “On the drilling platforms, the Russians set up warehouses with ammunition and fuel for helicopters,” the video commentary says.

    “They also placed radar stations on the towers with the help of which they monitored the situation in the entire Black Sea.”

    Comment by elmer — September 14, 2023 @ 11:35 am

  11. My head was spinning & I was about to comment on your pro-Elon post, but the guy suggesting a cold front in hell said it better! The slightly approving reference to Biden’s policy is a haw dropper too. I would like to see Ukraine gain amphibious capacity to attack Crimea as its loss would be a bigger hit to Putin than anything else.

    Comment by Ty Kelly — October 4, 2023 @ 8:39 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress