Elon Musk’s Tech Has Geopolitical Clout. Things Are Going to Get Weird.

Elon Musk has technology that the Pentagon needs. His company SpaceX has created a satellite communication system that is acing its first test on the battlefield in Ukraine. He’s also building rockets that the U.S. military thinks are part of the future of war. At the same time, he’s an irredeemable shitposter prone to parroting the talking points of U.S. adversaries and generally acting like a loose cannon. 

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Musk and the military can’t quit each other, and it’s only going to get more weird and contentious from here.

A recent example of said weirdness is Starlink, SpaceX’s space-based internet system that Musk has donated to Ukraine in the thousands and which is playing an active role on the battlefield. Amid this backdrop, Russia has highlighted America and Europe’s involvement in the war in Ukraine. Konstantin Vorontsov, the deputy head of Russia’s delegation at a U.N. arms control panel, recently said that satellites are fair targets for Moscow during the war, presumably referring to Starlink. “The quasi-civilian infrastructure could be a legitimate target for a retaliatory strike,” he said.

In September, Musk asked the Pentagon to take over the funding for Starlink in Ukraine, CNN reported in mid-October. Days later, Musk said “SpaceX has already withdrawn its request for funding,” in a tweet. He reaffirmed this position on October 23 in a tweet responding to another story. “Before [the Department of Defense] even came back with an answer, I told [Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Fedorov Mykhailo] that SpaceX would not turn off Starlink even if DoD refused to provide funding.” 

The change of heart came after Musk spent a week playing footsie with Russian nationalist ideas online, suggesting that Ukraine cede annexed territory to Russia as part of a peace deal that earned him a “fuck off” from a Ukrainian official. 

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All of this points to something crucial: the U.S. military and Elon Musk are now hopelessly intertwined. The Pentagon has become enraptured with Musk and the Silicon Valley ethos and awarded contracts to SpaceX in the millions. It wants to be more like these voracious venture capitalists when it comes to technology. Musk and other VCs love making money, and few things are as lucrative and guaranteed as a military contract. They’re stuck with each other.

The problem is that Musk often goes off the rails. He’s tried to negotiate peace between Ukraine and Russia, told a journalist that China should have more control over Taiwan, and smoked weed with Joe Rogan. He’s even been accused of speaking directly with Vladimir Putin, something Musk denied.  But the U.S. government has had to deal with all these messes, either by spending millions in taxpayer money for an investigation or by anonymously commenting on leaked documents in a major news outlet.

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The connection between Musk and the military goes back more than a decade. Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 and got to work putting rockets into space. He started the company because the Russian rocket company, Kosmotras, was too difficult to deal with. Musk traveled to Moscow in 2001 to establish a relationship and start buying rockets to fuel his budding ambitions for space travel. The meeting didn’t go well and Musk decided he could build the rockets himself. SpaceX was born.

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Musk’s idea was revolutionary: make reusable rockets. Government money flooded in. In 2004, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—the Pentagon’s mad scientists—and the U.S. Air Force gave the company an $8 million contract. The first three launches were failures and Musk and Tesla went bankrupt.

In 2008, Musk’s Falcon rockets still weren’t a runaway success. For every four rockets he sent up, only one would make it. The company was struggling and almost out of money when NASA awarded it a contract worth $1.6 billion. According to Musk, it saved the company.

With a fresh supply of government cash, SpaceX pushed forward. After a lot of failure and hard work, Musk’s firm became one of the only commercial space companies not reliant on Russian rockets.

The relationship between Musk and the military deepened from there. In 2020, Musk and an Air Force officer talked about space in a public forum at the Air Warfare Symposium. Former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten has had private dinners with Musk. And the Pentagon is looking to SpaceX to help it put imaging satellites in the sky, track satellites, and move cargo via rocket across the planet.

NASA and the Pentagon love Musk when he’s making rockets and satellites for them. The Space Force wants to use Musk’s rockets to move cargo around the planet. But he’s also been a pain in the ass. He’s a high profile weirdo who loves to tweet and constantly gets himself into the kind of trouble that the Pentagon doesn’t like. Case in point: In 2018, Musk went on the Joe Rogan show and smoked weed. For most of the population, this is an innocuous action. But military contracts come with provisos that require companies to have drug-free environments.

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It’s a dumb rule, to be sure, but one that Washington and the Pentagon take seriously. “If I see something that’s inappropriate, the key concern to me is what is the culture that led to that inappropriateness and is NASA involved in that,” then NASA administrator Jim Bridestone told The Washington Post after the Rogan incident. “As an agency we’re not just leading ourselves, but our contractors, as well. We need to show the American public that when we put an astronaut on a rocket, they’ll be safe.” 

NASA ordered a mandatory review of SpaceX’s workplace culture as a result of the incident. It cost $5 million. American taxpayers paid for it.

While Musk is taking government money, he’s constantly complaining about other people who do the same. His biggest competitor for rocket contracts is a Colorado-based company called United Launch Alliance (ULA). Right now, it’s beating SpaceX. According to U.S. Space Systems Command, ULA will be doing 5 flights for the military in 2024 while SpaceX is only doing 3. Musk has, of course, publicly sparred with ULA CEO Tory Bruno on Twitter.

“ULA would be dead as a doornail with the two launch provider DoD requirement,” Musk said on Twitter. “If this is not true, then you won’t have a problem removing it.” 

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The Pentagon has required at least two different companies to produce rockets for it. It fosters competition in a burgeoning field and ensures that the Pentagon covers its bases should something go wrong with one company. The risk-averse American Military doesn’t want to put all its eggs in one basket regarding rockets.

It’s a good thing, because all the rockets that aren’t SpaceX use the RD-180 rocket engine which is only manufactured in Russia. In March, Russia cut off the United States’ supply of these components. U.S. companies have been working towards weaning itself off of the Russian rocket engines since 2014, but the sudden loss was a small shock to the system—one that Musk is poised to benefit from.  As of this writing, ULA (which is owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing) still has a slim majority of the Pentagon’s rocket contracts, and SpaceX isn’t far behind.

And then there’s Starlink. The satellite communications device, initially pitched as linking up rural areas in the U.S., has been a major boon to Ukraine on the battlefield. Communication and logistics wins wars and Starlink has kept Ukraine connected in a way that’s game-changing. When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, the first thing it did was shut down the country’s internet. Starlink has made it hard for Moscow to stop Ukraine from communicating.

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But Musk has made Starlink a devil’s bargain. Musk’s satellite communications network is a reliable method of battlefield communication. But you have to buy it from Musk, who is capricious and increasingly interested in geopolitics. Delicate systems with a single point of failure can be a nightmare when something goes wrong. It’s even worse when that single point of failure is a mercurial billionaire. 

As the Ukrainian military liberated areas in the Kherson region from Russian forces, Starlink went down. According to Ukrainian sources, the loss of battlefield communications occurred while Kiev’s military was pushing into Russian controlled territory. They said the loss of Starlink during the battles was catastrophic. 

No one knows why the systems went down, but some observers pointed the finger at Musk. “It is absolutely clear to me that this is being done by representatives of Starlink to prevent the usage of their technology by Russian occupation forces,” Roman Sinicyn, the coordinator of a charity that donates Starlink’s to Ukraine, told Financial Times. “This operation has cost SpaceX $80M & will exceed $100M by end of year,” Musk said in a tweet calling that report inaccurate. “As for what’s happening on the battlefield, that’s classified.”  

A week later, CNN broke the story that SpaceX had told the Pentagon it couldn’t keep paying for Starlink in Ukraine.  According to CNN, it turns out that the U.S. and Poland had been footing most of the bill for the satellite communications network all along. Around 85 percent of the 20,000 terminals weren’t paid for by Starlink. Anonymous Pentagon officials told CNN they were pissed, calling out SpaceX for having the “gall to act like heroes” then sticking the Pentagon with a bill for tens of millions of dollars.

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Ten days before Musk tweeted out his peace plans for Ukraine and irritated the Pentagon, he tested the waters of backing Putin at a party for the rich and powerful. During an Aspen gathering called The Weekend, Musk spoke with fellow billionaire Dave Rubenstein before a crowd that included former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, Nancy Pelosi, and Al Gore. It was to this audience Musk first deployed his peace plans for Ukraine, according to people present who spoke with The New York Times. It wasn’t well received by the crowd.

The Kremlin, however, loved it when he tweeted it out a few days later. Musk’s plan would see the elections in the illegally annexed territories redone under U.N. supervision, a pledge from Ukraine to remain “neutral,” and the guarantee that annexed Crimea would stay under Russian control. It would be a win for the Kremlin, especially now that the war isn’t going well.

It would be easy to write this stuff off as the inconsequential rants of a billionaire out of touch with geopolitics, if they hadn’t come from Musk. It’s also easy to make fun of Musk himself because he does dumb shit like filming himself walking into Twitter headquarters with a kitchen sink. But he’s also one of the richest people in the world, one with Pentagon contracts, technology with geopolitical importance, and the ear of some of the most powerful people in the world.

That’s why the military can’t quit him, why it reigns him in when it can, and why it may not always be able to in the future. Right now Musk is stretching his geopolitical legs. Every offhand comment he makes has consequences, and he’s a point of failure in the delicate system of world politics. It’s a lot of power for a shitposter to have.