Corporate wars. How private space companies changed the face of warfare forever

When SpaceX started building the Starlink system, it positioned itself as a means of accessing the global network for the billions of people who do not have fiber-optic Internet. Everything changed on February 24. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine led to the fact that SpaceX suddenly found itself in the position of a global player capable of exerting a decisive influence on the course of hostilities.
Starlink antenna in Kharkiv region. Credit: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

In the first, most critical days of the invasion, the Russian army concentrated its efforts on destroying Ukrainian communication systems and means of communication. According to the plan of the command, it was supposed to plunge the entire country into chaos and facilitate its quick capture. However, the quickly delivered Starlink terminals made it possible to provide the Ukrainian government and the armed forces with stable connection, which became one of the reasons for the failure of the Russian plans.

But SpaceX was far from the only private company that came to Ukraine’s aid. Shortly after the start of the invasion, Ukrainian entrepreneur Max Polyakov formed a real “coalition” consisting of aerospace companies that have satellites designed to photograph the Earth’s surface. Their images are quickly transmitted to the Armed Forces, allowing them to track the movement of Russian troops and plan combat operations.
Column of Russian military equipment in the occupied territory. Source: Maxar/Getty Images

Don’t forget the contributions of companies like Planet Labs and Maxar. They released a series of satellite photos before the invasion began. The pictures clearly showed the concentration of Russian troops near the border, thereby refuting the Kremlin’s claim that Russia is not planning any attack. And now they are helping to fight Russian disinformation, revealing the truth about what is really happening in the occupied territories and regularly showing traces of war crimes.

Consequently, private space companies have proven to be an extremely effective tool on the battlefield. In fact, their capabilities have become comparable to those of space superpowers.
Mass burial near Mariupol. Source: Maxar Technologies

But this coin also had a flip side. Until recently, Elon Musk and SpaceX had the reputation of unofficial heroes of Ukraine. But a series of recent tweets — in which the billionaire first actually offered to hand over the occupied territories to Russia and then complained about the lack of payment for the Starlink terminals used in Ukraine — have raised questions about whose side he really is on.

On the one hand, Musk’s position can be understood in a way. Starlink was an extremely risky project, and many experts did not believe in its success. SpaceX has invested heavily in it and taken considerable risks. And direct support of one of the participants in the war significantly increases them. It is also no secret that Musk’s Martian project is based on the philosophy of creating a shelter that will allow humanity to survive a global catastrophe. It is clear that the threat of a nuclear apocalypse, fueled by the media, is very unnerving for the billionaire who dreams of “saving” our species.

On the other hand, SpaceX has soared so high that it actually rose above the level of individual states and became an independent player capable of influencing geopolitics. This has not happened since the time of the East India Company.
Starlink satellites as imagined by an artist. Source: SpaceX

All these factors are closely intertwined, forming a very difficult situation. Clearly, the US government has leverage over SpaceX. But, at the same time, it is worth mentioning that it was SpaceX that helped America get rid of dependence on Russia and in fact returned to it the leading position in space. Without Elon Musk’s company, the US would likely still have to use Russian rocket engines to launch military cargo and Russian spacecraft to deliver astronauts to the ISS. Both sides understand this very well. And this means that they will inevitably have to find compromises.

But no matter how the story with SpaceX is resolved, it is clear that this is only the beginning. Private space companies changed the face of modern warfare forever. And their influence will only continue to grow. And this means that national governments have to adapt to the new reality as quickly as possible and find ways to interact with them most effectively. Especially given the fact that the current conflict has already gone beyond a regional war and actually turned into a clash of two fundamentally different civilizations, and its outcome will define the future of our planet.

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