One private American citizen’s decision purportedly turned off the bands of the electronic spectrum that Ukrainian forces rely upon for drone operations at the front lines, just as a new Russian offensive kicked off. That same man controls the United States’ primary capability to get cargo and astronauts into space. His contracts with the Pentagon and NASA, including an agreement to develop satellites capable of tracking intercontinental ballistic missiles, are worth billions of dollars.
As his influence and willingness to wield it increase, Elon Musk’s eccentric views on foreign policy and erratic behavior present a strategic vulnerability to the United States.
Musk won great praise early last year for sending Starlink terminals to Ukraine and providing secure network access to a nation battling for its right to exist. But while public relations efforts from Starlink implied that these were provided by the company as a charitable venture, the truth was more complicated – the U.S. government paid millions for a significant portion of the equipment as well as its transportation costs to Ukraine.
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Dispute over Starlink left Ukraine more vulnerable
By October, following an online spat with a Ukrainian government official over an online poll that Musk initiated regarding settling the war on Russia’s terms, he threatened to shut off access to the system upon which the Ukrainian people, their government and military depended upon – unless the U.S. military started footing the bill.
Last month, Musk’s organization banned Ukrainian forces from operating drones using the Starlink network, with Starlink COO Gwynne Shotwell arguing that the network was “never meant to be weaponized,” despite broad awareness that the Ukrainian military had used the network for communications and drone operations for nearly a year.
On Twitter, Musk called criticism of the Starlink decision “media & other propaganda bs” and claimed that “we will not enable escalation of conflict that may lead to WW3.”
As one U.S. Department of Defense official told The Washington Post during the October dust-up, Musk “dangle(d) hope over the heads of millions,” then effectively stuck the U.S. government with a bill for services that “no one asked for but now so many depend on.”
Denying Ukraine a critical capability for surveillance in the ludicrous name of avoiding escalation – as if small quadcopters dropping grenades on individual Russian soldiers could somehow escalate a conflict defined by a large-scale terror campaign against civilians – is unconscionable.
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For the sake of “avoiding escalation,” Musk is effectively reducing Ukraine’s ability to oppose Russian forces’ attempted conquest of Ukraine, and he is doing it on Washington’s dime and counter to Washington’s interests.
Musk’s public commentary has swerved into engagement with pro-Kremlin accounts and propaganda, which most recently resulted in him amplifying false claims of NATO troops being killed by the thousands in Ukraine.
This shocking media illiteracy as well as swipes at the free press, the United Nations and the U.S. government should prompt caution from agencies that rely on Musk for his services, as valuable as those services might be.
Musk suggested surrendering Taiwan to China
In October, Musk suggested that tensions over Taiwan might be best resolved by handing control of Taiwan to China. It was a ludicrous notion, but when considered through the lens of Musk’s receipt of subsidies from the Chinese government and his multibillion dollar financial interest in China, a particularly concerning one.
The Global Times, one of China’s most prominent propaganda outlets, recently warned Musk publicly for drawing attention to the COVID-19 lab leak theory. The organization cited his significant business presence in the country and asked whether he was “breaking the pot of China” – a phrase akin to the English idiom “biting the hand that feeds you.”
It is worthwhile to consider the intelligence community’s markers for susceptibility to hostile intelligence recruitment – money, ideology, compromise and ego, or MICE. Operating a business reliant on positive relations with Beijing and buying a social media company for $44 billion only to force it to promote his own tweets in a fit of pique seem to trend heavily to “C” and “E.”
There is a worrying thread running throughout Musk’s chaotic behavior, and the federal government would do well to investigate it thoroughly before enmeshing his enterprises any further into the country’s national security. The Department of Defense would revoke security clearances from its own personnel for carrying unreasonable debt and displaying public admiration for American adversaries, but it seems oddly happy to reward Musk’s public endorsement of authoritarian propaganda with more multimillion dollar contracts.
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What is to stop one of Musk’s enterprises from deciding to turn off a ballistic missile detection satellite over the owner’s future escalation concerns? Or throttling network traffic to a Navy ship conducting a freedom-of-navigation operation in an area contested by China?
Taking it one step further, if Musk’s enterprises are crossing over into the defense market, which customers will they take on in the future, and what accountability measures will be put in place?
Musk is motivated by commercial interests, not U.S. national interest. His contracts with the government are extraordinarily lucrative, but he has clearly shown his willingness to act contrary to U.S. interests while taking the government’s money. Shockingly, he seems to avoid any financial consequences for doing so.
Instead, more and more government agencies and organizations are rushing to partner with Musk's enterprises. If these are services that the U.S. government plans to rely upon in the event of conflict, particularly a conflict with China, it cannot rely on the goodwill of one capricious individual.
American industry’s capacity for innovation has long been a strength in national defense, but running military operations via what is effectively a subscription service presents significant risk – especially in a case where the service provider is vulnerable to pressure from the United States’ primary adversary.
Blake Herzinger is a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His research areas include U.S. Indo-Pacific defense strategy, security cooperation in Asia, U.S. alliances and partnerships in Asia and naval/maritime affairs in the Indo-Pacific region.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Elon Musk's ties to China raise national security concerns