No easy way for US to split up with Musk

US govt may criticise him, but it’s addicted




Bangkok Post Public Company Limited


WASHINGTON: The White House denounced Elon Musk on Friday for “abhorrent promotion of antisemitic and racist hate,” for his endorsement of what an administration spokesperson called a “hideous lie” about Jews. All of which might make one think the Biden administration was going to try to pull back from doing business with the world’s richest person. Except that, in recent weeks, the US government has become more dependent on him than ever, agreeing to as much as $1.2 billion worth of SpaceX launches next year to put crucial Pentagon assets, including spy and command-andcontrol satellites, into space. And in September, the Pentagon agreed to pay tens of millions of dollars for Starshield, a new, secure communications system Musk’s company has set up for the nation’s defence and intelligence systems, relying on the same clusters of Starlink satellites that have proved vital to Ukraine’s military during the war with Russia. In private, administration officials say the Starlink satellites are critical to deterring China because they are far more resistant to Chinese efforts to disable them than the Pentagon’s own communications satellites. These are only the latest examples of why the federal government has no viable way to break up with Musk, at least as long as the United States decides it is going to continue space exploration and deter its biggest superpower rivals. It may denounce him and declare that all Americans should reject his views. But it needs him, or at least his rockets and his satellites, more than ever. And the White House and Pentagon both know that. Rarely has the US government so depended on the technology provided by a single, if petulant, business executive with views that it has so publicly declared repugnant. And yet, by the account of administration officials, they have no choice — and will not for a while. Because there are, right now, few viable alternatives. UNUSUAL PREDICAMENT It is an unusual predicament. If a top executive of one of the traditional publicly held defence contractors — Raytheon or Boeing or Lockheed Martin — had embraced an antisemitic conspiracy theory the way Musk did, there would be pressure from shareholders and customers alike for a resignation. In fact, advertisers such as IBM and Apple and Warner Bros Discovery have been announcing in recent days that they will pause doing business on X, formerly known as Twitter. Musk, rather than apologise, has threatened lawsuits. But SpaceX is privately held, entirely controlled by Musk. (Tesla, his electric vehicle company, is publicly held.) And so far, while the White House has been outspoken, the Pentagon has been silent. “It would be good to have alternatives, and the US government has tried to develop some,” Walter Isaacson, Musk’s biographer, said in an interview Sunday. “But no other company,” he said, including United Launch Alliance, a Boeing and Lockheed Martin venture, has “been able to make reusable rockets, or get astronauts into orbit, or get some of these heavy satellites into highEarth orbit.” In fact, ever since the invasion of Ukraine, military dependency on Musk has only increased. It was Musk’s decision to ship Starlink satellite equipment to Ukraine in the hours after the invasion that kept the country able to communicate, and ultimately to target Russian assets. Similarly, when Musk declined a Ukrainian request to extend the coverage of the system to Crimea, the Ukrainians found that they could not precisely aim drones on a mission to attack Russian ships. Later, Musk and Gen Mark Milley, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, worked out a deal for Starshield, the Pentagon system that will be based on Starlink, the world’s largest satellite constellation. However, the Pentagon will control the new system, so that where it can operate is not dependent on a single executive’s whims. NASA is also working with Musk, in separate contracts collectively worth at least $4 billion, to land two sets of its astronauts on the moon with SpaceX’s new Starship rocket, bringing humans back to the lunar surface for the first time in more than 50 years. SpaceX is also the primary way the United States supplies the International Space Station and new crews. ‘CAN’T HAVE LAST WORD’ During the second quarter of this year, SpaceX alone sent nearly 80% of world’s payload by mass into space, according to an analysis by one industry consultant, Bryce Tech. That 472,000 pounds of cargo carried by SpaceX in that time is more than five times as much as Russia and China collectively lifted off Earth into orbit and nearly 40 times as much as the closest competitor in the United States, United Launch Alliance. It is a level of dominance unlike just about any industry sector in the world. And it is far more consequential, in terms of market share, than Tesla’s role in the electric vehicle market. Musk, Pentagon officials said, has brought real benefit to the Defense Department and the commercial space industry worldwide. “They did pretty dramatically lower our cost to orbit,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in an interview with The New York Times last month. But Pentagon officials, including Kendall, said they are working to try to expand their choices in terms of space launch, both for smaller commercial loads and the most expensive and sensitive national security launches. They soon will be taking bids from new providers to try to make the United States less reliant on any one launch provider, as it is now. This level of dominance has already brought expressions of concern from some members of Congress and investigators at the Senate Armed Services Committee, who are examining SpaceX’s commanding role in providing the military access to space and spacebased communications. “Serious national security liability issues have been exposed,” Sen Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, said in a statement in September, after it was first disclosed that SpaceX had limited Ukraine’s ability to use its Starlink system at one point during the war. “Neither Elon Musk, nor any private citizen,” he said, “can have the last word when it comes to US national security.”