Edited by Sam Thielman
IN LATE FEBRUARY, Elon Musk rushed terminals for SpaceX's satellite-derived broadband service, Starlink, to Ukraine, bolstering the country's connectivity amidst the Russian invasion. After about a month, Musk took to the platform he has now forcibly acquired to make a significant claim. “Starlink, at least so far,” Musk tweeted on Mar. 25, "has resisted all hacking & jamming attempts" by the Russians.
Considering the sophistication of Russian electromagnetic warfare capabilities, the resiliency of Starlink would seem formidable. The Pentagon certainly thinks so. Last week, at a C4ISRNet defense tech/media symposium, Dave Tremper, the director for electronic warfare at the Pentagon's acquisitions directorate, said his eyes watered at how Starlink has effectively worked in support of Ukraine":
It kind of gets at, what's the impact of capability latency, what's the impact of capability upgrade latency, and so it was eye-watering to see the news report that the Russians were trying to jam Starlink and I think almost the next day, it in fact was the next day, Starlink had slung a line of code and had fixed it. Right? And suddenly that [attack] was not effective anymore. And kind of from that EW-technologist perspective, that is fantastic, right? And that paradigm, and how they did that, that is eye-watering to me.
(Comments begin around the 5:55 mark in the video.)
Perhaps Starlink performed as Musk said it did. But as best I can tell, the only source for the claim is Elon Musk.
The Secure World Foundation's Brian Weeden, a former Air Force Space Command officer and someone whose space, satellite and missile expertise I often relied upon when I was at WIRED, hasn't seen anything to verify that a software update beat a Russian jamming effort. He thinks it smells off. "I myself have been extremely skeptical that it's even possible to solve jamming with a couple lines of code, let alone that Starlink did it, but I have not seen any public sources to evaluate this one way or the other," Weeden told FOREVER WARS.
Tremper's remarks were reported in the defense tech press as confirming Musk's claims of performance. (To her credit, Breaking Defense's Valerie Insinna referred to Musk as "famously something of a showboater.") When FOREVER WARS asked if Tremper or anyone else in the Defense Department had indeed confirmed Starlink's alleged performance under attack, the Pentagon, watery eyes notwithstanding, clarified that they hadn't. "Mr. Tremper was referencing open source news reporting so he doesn’t have much more insight to the incident," said Pentagon spokesperson Jessica Maxwell, who referred me to… Starlink.
Weeden, as mentioned, has his doubts. "There was a Reddit thread about this, with lots of people hypothesizing about changing frequencies or doing frequency hopping, all of which is theoretically plausible but not really practical when you take into account the impacts across the entire constellation, end users, and their existing spectrum licenses," he said.
Frequencies and bandwidth play an enormous role in determining a satellite communication system's capacity, Weeden explained. "Unless they were designed for it beforehand, most satellite communications systems can't simply switch frequencies without also needing to redesign antenna gains, transmit power level, coding, and a host of other variables," he told FOREVER WARS. "Plus, commercial satellite communications systems are licensed to operate within specific frequency ranges and can't go outside those bands without explicit permission from regulators and coordination."
Then come the broader doubts about Elon Musk.
In 2019, Musk promised a million driverless Tesla taxis by the end of 2020 on American public roadways that have yet to see one (1) driverless Tesla cab as of 2022. Several other companies, including Chevrolet, have begun trials. On the same day in August 2018 when the Saudi state investment fund bought about 5 percent of Tesla, Musk tweeted that he would take the company private at $420 a share. That sent the market into such chaos that Musk was fined for it by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is generally consulted when a business owner plans to delist a public company from stock exchanges. He tried to get BuzzFeed to call a heroic diver who rescued a children’s soccer team a “child rapist” because the diver made fun of the ridiculous miniature submarine the billionaire wanted to use in the extraction. He convinced Andrew Cuomo to spend $958.6 million to build a $75 million factory to create jobs in Buffalo for the debt-plagued company he’d bought from his cousins. The bids to actually build the factory, part of the legendarily corrupt “Buffalo Billion,” were rigged to go to executives who had donated generously to Cuomo.
A SpaceX executive said that the U.S. hadn't "given us any money" for Starlink in Ukraine, a claim contradicted by documents seen by the Washington Post. Just two weeks ago, Bloomberg reported on a memo indicating that workers in Tesla's Shanghai factory will, in the name of producing wealth for Elon, require workers "to sleep on the floor in a designated area." The difference between an oligarch and a pharaoh is religion.
I am not going to pretend like this piece has any definitive answers about whether the Spectrum Showdown Between Elon's Code And Ivan's Code actually happened. What's more significant is the enthusiasm and credulity with which Musk is received by Pentagon acquisition officials. It also seems relevant that the spark for this particular enthusiasm was a missive over Twitter, the social media platform Musk seized yesterday. But even without Twitter, Musk is the kind of tech oligarch that Pentagon people stan.
BACK WHEN I WAS WIRED'S man in the Pentagon, part of the job was to attend meetings, conferences, and absurd expos where defense contractors, from industry giants to aspirants, network and party with Pentagon officials and military officers. Some people wear uniforms, some wear suits, some wear business cazhe. Some even wear exoskeletons.
At the Department of Defense, the appetite for audacious technological claims is only dwarfed by the amount of money involved. I struggled at times to convey in WIRED how these unfathomable sums—during and after the 2008 financial collapse—breed apathy over whether any particular scheme hatched. This is still happening: It's 2022 and the Navy trying to abandon the Littoral Combat Ship after two decades of claiming this weird, small Swiss Army knife of a trimaran was crucial to winning the "urban littoral," battleground of the near-future. During the C4ISR forum, the Air Force's electromagnetic warfare guy, Brig. Gen. Tad Clark, referenced the innovation during the Iraq War of repurposing jamming tech to stop IEDs. He left out the part where it was a massive, $20-plus billion failure—a failure measured in people's lives and limbs—because of extremely basic economics.
The defense industry is where capitalism gets laundered into patriotism. There's something for everyone, from zealots to technocrats. The zealots get the means to smite their real and imagined enemies. The technocrats get to manage those means, and in so doing to view themselves as a bulwark against the zealots. And the capitalists, bolstered by the politicians they fund, get it all. What, are you against good-paying jobs?
Among the technocratic strain of defense professionals—those who cycle between the military, defense contractor jobs, and political appointments—there is a self-conception of "national security" as a sensible respite from the insanity of national politics, and not at all as a reflection of it. For the first embed I did for WIRED in Afghanistan, I interviewed a one-star Air Force general at Bagram Air Field. When I arrived at his office, he pretended like I had candidly walked in on him reading the magazine. The joke was that WIRED reflected his sensibilities. It greeted the promise of technology with awe. The general was trying to reassure me that he, as well, was a patriotic futurist.
A state enterprise reliant on private industry to preserve American global military superiority is going to view technologically absurd and sometimes straightforwardly stupid endeavors as the cost of winning the future for the good guys. As mentioned, it pays those developing such futuristic endeavors fantastically well, whether or not their projects work and whether or not any service actually buys them. Consider how readily Jim Mattis, so often portrayed as a sage in uniform, ate Theranos' bullshit. Add into the mix a palpable if under-examined anxiety about displacement by China as a global hegemon, and you have an enterprise where eyes water before a man such as Elon Musk.
YOU ABSOLUTELY DO NOT GOTTA TO HAND IT TO ELON, BUT he knew that he could muscle his way into Defense Department contracts without necessarily outcompeting the legacy aerospace giants. In 2014, Musk used a lawsuit to demand SpaceX be awarded—cough, be allowed to compete for— rocket launch contracts. Thanks to the fact that the existing contract represented legal collusion between Lockheed Martin and Boeing, it worked! SpaceX got a piece of a contract that paid out $19 billion between 2012 and 2019. Just last month, the Air Force awarded SpaceX $159 million over the next year to launch two intelligence satellite arrays into orbit. It's almost funny until you remember they're playing with your money.
Musk's Pentagon play is similar to his Twitter takeover. The extant corruption of a platform—Twitter's incoherent positions on permissible speech covering for its imperative to accumulate data from an expanding base of users; the Lockheed Martin/Boeing/Air Force self-dealing known as the United Launch Alliance; New York’s quid pro Cuomo—permits Musk to posture as its incorruptible disrupter while he simply pulls up a stool to its trough. Last year, Musk trolled the United Launch Alliance, saying that it would be "dead as a doornail without the two launch provider DOD requirement," as though he was not—at that very moment!—seeking a share of what CNBC delicately called the "heavy government support" that Musk, not unfairly, identifies as a theater of corruption.
Naturally, Musk trolled his competitors—Lockheed and Boeing—on Twitter. But I'm sure the world's richest man won't leverage his newly-conquered communications platform to entrench himself further into Pentagon contracting, which offers massive, publicly-subsidized and otherwise unreachable scale. He's out to restore free speech, not to shitpost or shadowban his enemies into oblivion. He said so himself.