November 14, 2023 | The Messenger

The Perils of Allowing Elon Musk’s Starlink Into Gaza

November 14, 2023 | The Messenger

The Perils of Allowing Elon Musk’s Starlink Into Gaza

Elon Musk wants Starlink, his low-earth orbit satellite constellation that delivers broadband internet, to be operating in Gaza. If deployed, the system could erode Israel’s internet blackout in the area, enabling more efficient delivery of humanitarian aid. It also would undermine Israel’s warfighting advantage. Israel’s Minister of Communication, Shlomo Karhi, has been explicit in voicing opposition: “Israel will use all means at its disposal to fight this.”

The Starlink network has proved to be a significant wartime capability in Ukraine. It also has underscored the need for a revitalization of American and allied military industrial bases — to address the immediate crises of the day, and to do so in a fashion that can credibly deter great power threats like China. Starlink’s connectivity could be valuable for humanitarian needs in Gaza, but deploying Starlink there carries security risks: It would grant the company the ability to select users and monitor their access to critical communications networks during conflict. That, in turn, means the ability to assign advantage and disadvantage, potentially even to track operations. And that is quite the power to assign a profit-seeking, non-governmental organization.

Musk has suggested that the standard for acquiring access to a Gaza-focused Starlink plan would be “internationally recognized aid organizations.” That is a nebulous standard. It seems likely to end up permissive to or manipulatable by Hamas-linked actors on the ground in Gaza. And there’s no technological silver bullet to protect against that risk. For example, Starlink could attempt to use geolocation to restrict access to only approved users, but geolocation can be spoofed.

These security risks are just the tactical tip of the iceberg. There’s a larger, more strategic and scary reality reflected by the continued presence of Musk and Starlink in international fora. U.S. and allied governments are dropping the ball in leadership, largely because their industrial bases are far from war-ready. That hurts the U.S. ability to fight, let alone fight on multiple fronts. It hurts the U.S. ability to be a reliable ally, able to deter attack or defend against it alongside America’s allies and partners globally.

The structure of today’s global business order is such that the private sector and technological innovators, such as Musk and Starlink, cannot be trusted to fill in these gaps. Yes, they clearly have much to offer in modern warfare, but their organizational cultures and profit motives are not the stuff of William Knudsen. Today’s global business leaders depend on non-democratic, non-market forces and regimes to sustain their business models and simplistic growth mindsets. For example, anti-American forces flowing from the Chinese Communist Party shape the interests and preferences of American business and financial elites far more than is generally recognized. That influence carries strategic and national security threats.

Elon Musk’s business empire proves the point: His prized asset Tesla depends on China for its supply chain, low-cost production, and the promise of a growing Chinese market for electric vehicles. China’s potential influence over Musk is an insurmountable reality — just as is China’s influence over American adversaries around the world, such as Russia, Iran and North Korea. Accordingly, relying on a Musk-operated network for governing battlefield communications is like bringing a borrowed knife to a gunfight — a knife borrowed from the opponent.

The conflict in Gaza provides immediate pressure and opportunity. The United States and Israel should coordinate, via diplomatic means and intelligence sharing, to assure that Israeli forces have an information advantage on the battlefield. The United States must be a steadfast ally for Israel’s immediate security, also positioning for deterrence in a world of broader hostilities.

This matters not just for Israel. It matters for the global order. Winning this battle will help to prevent broader escalations that may benefit Iranian, Russian, and Chinese forces in the world — all of which have been encouraged by consistent U.S. floundering on the global stage.

Just as important for the safety and security of U.S. and Israeli interests is restoring an industrial base that can win the next war. Initiatives like the U.S.-Israel Operations-Technology Working Group should be leveraged to deliver outsize returns from the technological expertise of each side, including in terms of expanding innovations around low-earth orbit (LEO) launch capacity and information network security. Winning the next war demands winning the production battle. The U.S. and Israel are uniquely positioned to usher in a new era of productive democratic and market-based answers to that challenge.

As the saying goes, the enemy gets a vote. With Starlink, they may get not only a vote but also a veto. That dynamic should worry Israelis. It also should be the wake-up call that U.S. leaders need to restore real strategic capabilities and ensure that the domestic private sector supports America’s interests and the values shared with allies. Today’s crisis provides an opportunity to get this right, to return to a stronger U.S.-Israel partnership and global position that draws on technological and industrial capacity to deliver strategic value. 

Emily de La Bruyère and Nathan Picarsic are Senior Fellows at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and co-founders of Horizon Advisory.


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