Russia Tried to Hold Ukraine’s Internet Hostage, Then SpaceX Stepped In

Photo credit: NurPhoto - Getty Images

Photo credit: NurPhoto – Getty Images

  • SpaceX’s successful intervention in Ukrainian satellite signal-jamming is a model for the Pentagon, officials say.

  • Russian electronic jamming affected Starlink satellite internet receivers sent to Ukraine.

  • SpaceX quickly issued a fix for the jam, something the Pentagon says current rules won’t allow the public sector to do.

The U.S. Department of Defense is casting envious eyes on Elon Musk’s SpaceX after the aerospace company swiftly responded to an “electronic warfare attack” in Ukraine last month. SpaceX donated Starlink terminals to Ukraine to help the country stay connected in wartime, but Russian signal-jamming attempted to thwart those plans. The notoriously bureaucratic Pentagon says it’s a model for responding to threats that it can’t currently match—but desperately needs to.

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Back in February, Ukraine’s government appealed to SpaceX for a shipment of Starlink satellite internet terminals. The terminals supplemented Ukraine’s prewar internet infrastructure, which has seen reduced service due to damage from the war and Russian hacking. Starlink quickly shipped 5,000 terminals to Ukraine, with 3,667 donated by SpaceX and the remaining 1,333 purchased by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The first shipment of terminals arrived just two days after the appeal.

According to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, some Starlink terminals near the front line in Ukraine were experiencing jamming, presumably from Russian military electronic warfare units. Musk later tweeted that the company quickly “reprioritized to cyber defense & overcoming signal jamming,” and issued a fix within a day, broadcast to all Starlink terminals. The fix reportedly involved changing a single line of software code.

A one-day turnaround for software fixes is par for the course for commercial businesses, especially startups, but not for the government. Dave Tremper, director of electronic warfare for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, told attendees at an industry conference that SpaceX’s handling of Russian jamming in Ukraine was “eye-watering.”

Photo credit: Nina Lyashonok/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing - Getty Images

Photo credit: Nina Lyashonok/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing – Getty Images

Tremper described the Pentagon’s system for implementing a similar jamming fix as involving a “‘significant timeline to make those types of corrections’ as it muddles through analyses of what happened, decides how to fix it, and gets a contract in place for the fix,” according to C4ISRNET.

Laying aside the depressing thought that the U.S. government couldn’t change a single line of code in 24 hours for important software, at least the Pentagon is honest that it must become more responsive. This is one of those situations where the commercial industry can show the Pentagon how to keep pace with threats under rapidly-changing circumstances.

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