Tue. Oct 3rd, 2023
U.S. Military Considers Need for Explicit Contracts with Commercial Vendors

SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s decision to reject Ukraine’s request to use Starlink internet services for an attack on Russian forces in Crimea has prompted Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall to question the need for more explicit language in future military contracts. A new biography of Musk revealed that Ukraine had sought Starlink support in September 2022 to target Russian naval vessels in Crimea, but Musk refused due to concerns about potential nuclear retaliation from Russia. Although Musk was not under a military contract when he declined Ukraine’s request, the U.S. military has since entered into a funded and officially contracted relationship with Starlink. However, this development has raised concerns among military planners regarding potential refusals of service from commercial vendors in future conflicts.

During a roundtable discussion at the Air Force Association convention, Kendall highlighted the need for assurances that commercial systems would be available for operational use if the military is going to rely on them. The military must be able to depend on these services in wartime, not just in peacetime when they may be convenient and cost-effective. SpaceX has also secured a contract with the Air Mobility Command to develop a rocket ship that would rapidly transport military cargo to conflict or disaster zones, potentially reducing reliance on slower aircraft or ships. General Mike Minihan, head of the Air Mobility Command, emphasized the importance of understanding the full range of possible uses for American industry.

As the U.S. military has increased its investment in space, concerns have emerged regarding the insurance of commercial vendors against liability in case of launch failures. There is also a question of whether the military is obligated to defend the assets of these firms, such as satellites or ground stations, if they are providing military support in a conflict. Prior to Musk’s refusal in Ukraine, there had been no focus on including language in contracts stipulating that firms providing military support must consent to the use of their support in combat. Andrew Hunter, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, emphasized that when the military acquires technology, services, or platforms, it expects them to be used for Air Force purposes, including support for combat operations when necessary.