Pentagon can’t force Starlink to block service to Russians, US official says

A 2023 photo of a Starlink satellite antenna used by the Ukrainian military in Bakhmut, Ukraine.

A 2023 photo of a Starlink satellite antenna used by the Ukrainian military in Bakhmut, Ukraine. Viktor Fridshon/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

US is “taking steps” and “working through” the problem with SpaceX and Ukraine, space-policy leader says.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado—As new details come to light about Russia’s use of Starlink satellite terminals, a top Pentagon official said the Defense Department can’t force SpaceX to cut service to the invaders—say, by creating a whitelist for Ukrainian troops’ terminals.

“I don't think that DOD is in a position to make them do these things, so I'll just say that. I'm aware of Ukraine's concerns, working through it with both Ukraine and Starlink,” said John Plumb, assistant defense secretary for space policy.  

Russian forces have been using Starlink inside Ukraine, Defense One previously reported, compromising the advantage Ukraine once had. Now, the Wall Street Journal has detailed how Starlink is sold through “a shadowy supply chain” and makes its way to Russian forces and other U.S. foes. 

Starlink is a commercial product, and Russia has no problem trying to buy things through the black market, Plumb told reporters Wednesday at the 2024 Space Symposium. 

Various actors’ efforts to obtain and use Starlink is “something we just have to bake in and understand. And make no mistake, the reason it's this thing is because it's so effective,” he said. 

SpaceX officials have previously said that the company does no business with Russia, that the Starlink service does not work there. 

Some lawmakers have probed SpaceX on Russia’s illegal acquisition of Starlink, questioning whether the company has implemented enough safeguards to prevent Russia from using the communications service against Ukraine. 

Asked whether SpaceX is doing enough to mitigate the use of Starlink by malign actors, Plumb repeated, "I think they're a great partner."

The Pentagon is working with Ukraine and SpaceX “to provide the services that Ukraine needs and prevent Russian forces from using this…certainly without licenses, and certainly not at the behest of the country at which they're invading, for goodness sake. So we're working on it, making some progress, and after that, it gets classified,” Plumb said. 

The Defense Department is “taking steps” to deal with the threat, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said today. “There are bad actors out there who will take a capability like Starlink and misdirect it. I've been seeing some things in the press about black market, basically, for Starlink terminals, so the people who are directly responsible for enforcing those things, and so, are acting on this. I'm confident of that, but I can't give any more information about where we are."