At the start of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, as billionaire Elon Musk was focused on enhancing the capabilities of his private American space company, SpaceX, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister put out a plea that only the eccentric genius billionaire could answer. Ukraine needed help maintaining its internet connectivity in the face of what would be Russian attempts to disrupt Ukraine’s internet connection with the world.
Without missing a beat, SpaceX deployed 40 Starlink satellites within 24 hours of the Ukrainian plea. Mr. Musk then followed that launch by sending Starlink ground terminals to the embattled Ukraine. This move, as Mr. Musk noted on social media at the time, would surely make the private American firm a direct target of any potential Russian military escalation in space. After all, isolating Ukraine from the world is a key component of Russia’s overall military invasion strategy for obtaining total dominance over its neighbor. By depriving Russia of its ability to silence Ukraine in its hour of need, Mr. Musk has not only reaffirmed the growing importance of space to modern warfare but also has given Ukraine the ability to wage information warfare unimpeded by Moscow.
Shortly after this incident, tensions between Russia and the United States mounted over the future of the International Space Station. What has long been the pinnacle of Russo-American cooperation in space, since the eruption of hostilities between Russia and the West over Ukraine, has now become a strategic lever that both Moscow and Washington seek to use against each other. Initially, the Americans placed tough sanctions on Russia’s aerospace industry.
In response, the head of Russia’s space agency, Dmitry Rogozin, tweeted an ominous threat about how America’s sanctions on Russia’s critical aerospace industry could lead to the destruction of the ISS. After that tweet elicited condemnation from Washington, Moscow suspended any future flights of American astronauts on their ancient Soyuz capsules, with Mr. Rogozin mocking the Americans by saying, “Have fun [getting into space] on your broomsticks!” Not long after Mr. Rogozin’s outburst, SpaceX stepped up and offered to do more to ferry Americans to and from the ISS on their advanced spaceships.
Mr. Musk was denying Russia the ability to escalate in space against the ISS.
Clearly, SpaceX is not an ordinary company. It is a major strategic player in the new space race between the United States, Russia and China — and it gives the United States key advantages over its rivals. SpaceX is making itself an invaluable component of the United States military’s effort to protect its presence in the strategic high ground of space. Because of this, as its war in Ukraine continues and the body count (as well as international outrage) mounts, Russia will eventually target SpaceX for attack.
So, how can the U.S. government better defend SpaceX from any potential Russian attack? Because, without SpaceX, the U.S. government would be stuck on Earth looking up as Russia and China take the cosmos without us.
By making launches more affordable for military satellites with SpaceX’s reusable rockets over the last decade, Mr. Musk has already allowed for the Pentagon to save money and reinvest that money into other critical missions. SpaceX innovated at a time when few other firms working with the Defense Department could achieve that.
Mr. Musk’s Starlink satellite constellation will prove instrumental as a redundancy should America’s enemies (or even a solar flare) damage America’s traditional satellites in orbit. Starlink satellites are smaller and cheaper to launch — and easier to replace should they be attacked or damaged than conventional satellites. And their use in a contested environment by Ukraine will provide a critical roadmap for the United States when and if Russia (or China) decide to attack America’s vulnerable-yet-vital satellites in orbit.
Now is the time to recognize that the United States is woefully behind its rivals in space. Washington must quickly craft policies for addressing these concerns and protecting American interests in space. A key part of protecting America’s role in space is by defending the private companies that support America’s ongoing role in space.
China, Russia and the U.S. use space for military purposes. Both Russia and China seek unconventional ways to debilitate the U.S. military on Earth. Depriving America’s military of access to space is one way that both Moscow and Beijing plan on weakening the Americans and their allies on land, at sea, in the air and throughout cyberspace.
Thanks to Mr. Musk, America has a fighting chance in this new space race (that is evolving into a space war). In classic American fashion, Mr. Musk isn’t waiting for anyone in government to give him permission to act. SpaceX is just acting decisively to assist American allies from attack. In the process, SpaceX is being exposed to possible, direct retaliation from a rival nation-state. Without proper policies and strategies being crafted by Washington to better protect mission-critical companies, like SpaceX, the company could become a casualty of Russian aggression over Ukraine. Losing a pivotal private firm like SpaceX will deal a serious blow to the United States in the race to dominate the strategic high ground of space.
The Biden administration must announce that any attack on SpaceX property or personnel will be viewed as an attack on U.S. forces. President Biden must extend deterrence to the private American space sector before America’s enemies start targeting them to weaken the U.S. militarily.
• Brandon J. Weichert is the author of “Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower” (Republic Book Publishers) who manages The Weichert Report: World News Done Right. He can be followed via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.