Musk’s SpaceX, major national security contractor, forges closer ties with U.S. spy and military agencies

by | Feb 20, 2024

In addition to winning at least one significant classified contract and expanding Starshield, a secretive company satellite program for national security clients, SpaceX is strengthening its ties with American intelligence and military organizations.

According to company documents seen by The Wall Street Journal, the Elon Musk-led business entered into a $1.8 billion classified contract with the US government in 2021. In the documents, SpaceX stated that in the upcoming years, the contract's funds were anticipated to play a significant role in its revenue mix. The name of the government client was not made public.

The agreement's scope and secrecy highlight the growing reliance between the national security establishment and SpaceX, a major force in the space industry.

Military and classified satellites have long been a part of SpaceX's work for U.S. defense clients. More recently, the Pentagon has conducted business with SpaceX's Starlink broadband service, including making payments for Ukrainian internet connections while the country was at war with Russia.

A former Air Force general is one of the leaders of SpaceX's Starshield unit, which is designed for government clients. To offer communications services to numerous Pentagon partners, Starshield received a $70 million award from the military in August. The group has, however, largely operated secretly.

Gwynne Shotwell, the company's president, stated at an event last May that SpaceX and the intelligence community are working very well together.

In a website published in late 2022, SpaceX claimed that Starshield offered satellites that could conduct secure communications, collect information about the Earth, or carry sensors or other observational equipment while in orbit.

People with top-secret clearances, experience working with the Defense Department, and the intelligence community have been sought out by Starshield in its online job postings.

For one, position the person in charge would have to speak on behalf of Starshield to Pentagon combatant commands, which are responsible for managing global military operations or particular tasks like cybersecurity and transportation.

Requests for comment were not answered by a SpaceX spokesman.

Since it was a young company, SpaceX has collaborated with national security organizations. The Wall Street Journal reported almost 20 years ago that Musk's company won a launch contract with an unnamed U.S. intelligence customer not long after the company was founded in 2002. Later, SpaceX started managing routine military and intelligence agencies launches.

For its satellite technologies, the company has also attracted sizable national security clients, which is a distinct offering from SpaceX's customary work blasting satellites for those clients. People with knowledge of the situation claim that the National Reconnaissance Office was one such client.

The NRO, which is housed in a sizable office park south of Dulles International Airport, employs personnel from various Pentagon branches as well as the Central Intelligence Agency. These organizations support the federal government's civilian and national security agencies by using satellite data. Up until 1992, the government kept its existence a closely guarded secret.

What satellite technology the NRO has used was unknown.

According to an NRO spokesman, the organization collaborates with a variety of partners to develop intelligence products. The spokesman stated that “we are strengthening our ties with other government organizations, the private sector, academia, and other countries.”

In order to quickly produce satellites and launch them into low-Earth orbit at a speed that competitors cannot match, SpaceX executives have bragged about the company's capabilities to government buyers. Executives at organizations that collaborate closely with SpaceX have praised the company's nimble aesthetic and sophisticated technology.

The company runs the largest fleet in the world, with about 5,400 satellites in operation as of mid-February, roughly ten years after Musk announced that SpaceX would create a satellite-internet business to sell high-speed internet links to consumers and businesses. Starlink, which is marketed for general use, is powered by these gadgets.

As space develops into a contentious arena that mirrors geopolitical rivalries on Earth, SpaceX's significance to the U.S. government grows. China has increased its ability to travel in space. U.S. officials stated this month that Russia wants to create a space-based nuclear weapon that could be used to attack satellites.

The tracking of missile launches and the provision of secure communications of satellites are important components of American national security. Others use sensors or cameras to keep an eye on the ground's activity.

Some Pentagon space executives want to stop directing the construction and launch of large, powerful satellites that could take ten years. They request that contractors launch satellite swarms as soon as possible so that they can remain online in the event that other systems fail in their place. In the upcoming years, officials intend to launch military and spy satellites at a rapid pace.

Throughout Ukraine's conflict with Russia, SpaceX has demonstrated its capacity to quickly construct and launch satellites. The company's Starlink satellite network has supported military and civil society communications in Ukraine since the beginning of the war.

Tensions have also been raised by the service. Last year, SpaceX's Shotwell claimed that the company had taken action to prevent Ukrainian troops from engaging in direct combat with it. The top military intelligence officer in Ukraine claimed this month that Russian invasion forces are accessing internet services through thousands of Starlink terminals in occupied Ukrainian territory.

According to Musk, SpaceX is unaware of any direct or indirect sales of Starlink terminals to Russia. Starlink has said SpaceX takes steps to deactivate terminals if the company determines sanctioned or unauthorized parties are using them.

(Source: The Wall Street Journal)



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