SpaceX goes full defense contractor with Starshield, focused on national security

SpaceX’s launch services have already become an invaluable resource for the U.S. government, but the company is now jumping into the deep end of a pool where it has only splashed around until now. Starshielda new vertical within SpaceX, will provide “government organizations” (think three-letter agencies) with secure communications and custom-designed satellites.

The new brand (probably a subsidiary) appeared as a new top-tier category on SpaceX’s website, alongside Dragon, Starlink and Starship, but otherwise received no visible promotion or discussion on the company’s media channels. I’ve asked the company for more details on certain aspects, but for now, all you need to know is on the Starshield page.

The slogan is “supporting national security”, but it is not yet clear whether this will actually directly support military intelligence or operations, or whether it will be limited to, if not purely civilian, then less combat roles. Data from satellite sources – especially live imagery – is of huge importance to the military, which is both producing its own using spysats and paying companies like BlackSky for it. While some other nations can take advantage of some of these opportunities, laws limit how much can be sold abroad.

Although Starshield’s page uses the present tense saying it provides certain services, it doesn’t list active missions or clients, so this may be rhetorical. That said, the company claims to do Earth observation and secure communications, as well as satellite bus design.

Although SpaceX, through Starlink, has a lot of experience putting satellites into orbit, this network was meant to be consumer-focused and general-purpose, not an asset that could be used as a spy satellite. If SpaceX has its own military-grade Earth observation satellites, it has been very quiet about designing and launching them. But Starlink’s success shows there’s no reason the company can’t do it in principle.

SpaceX says this government-targeted service will require “customer Starshield equipment,” which likely resembles the operational Starlink but meets certain special standards for robustness, access, documentation and compatibility with existing networks and assets. Since Starlink itself has multiple tiers of ground station, from a simple consumer rooftop type to a twin ultra-durable marine type, the Starshield version is likely to be one of the high-end ones, enhanced (eg with “extra high security cryptographic capability”) and with corresponding price.

More importantly, the move helps separate the work of the government from the work of consumers. The company complained that deploying thousands of terminals in Ukraine has led to a quagmire of legal and financial finger-pointing: Ukraine can’t pay, its allies haven’t agreed to pay, and SpaceX can’t provide the expensive service for free indefinitely. This is partly because the entire web was really never intended to be used this way, and grafting a military/aid operation onto a consumer product has had unintended consequences.

By being more intentional about what services it provides to government organizations and under what terms, SpaceX likely hopes to avoid blurring the lines between being a global broadband provider and being a military intelligence provider. Both can be very profitable in their own way, but rarely does one product adequately serve both purposes.

Image Credits: SpaceX

The company also claims to produce a modular satellite bus for various types of missions, although this is again unsubstantiated – not to say it isn’t, but the capabilities are simply stated, not shown with anything beyond a frame image.

Exactly how far SpaceX has gone in achieving the capabilities it describes here is anyone’s guess – they may have prototyped some of these things already with some prospective customers, or it may simply be a statement of intent with those customers in mind. Regardless of which is the case now, it seems clear that we’ll be hearing more about this service as its roles avoid attempts at secrecy — for example, it’s hard to launch a large Earth observation satellite without anyone finding out.

I’ve asked SpaceX for more information about its customers and capabilities and will update this post if the company responds.

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