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Elon Musk’s SpaceX blocked Russian electromagnetic attack in Ukraine

Elon Musk meets with U.S. Air Force Academy Cadets (U.S. Air Force/Justin R. Pacheco)
April 21, 2022

U.S. officials praised Elon Musk’s SpaceX this week for shutting down a Russian electromagnetic warfare attack on Ukraine last month, which sought to jam SpaceX’s Starlink satellite service that has been allowing Ukraine to access the internet for free since late February.

“The next day [after reports about the Russian jamming effort hit the media], Starlink had slung a line of code and fixed it,” Dave Tremper, director of electronic warfare for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, said on Wednesday as reported by Defense News. “And suddenly that [Russian jamming attack] was not effective anymore. From [the] EW technologist’s perspective, that is fantastic … and how they did that was eye-watering to me.”

The U.S. government is not able to make “those types of corrections” quickly, Temper warned, highlighting a “significant timeline” that involves analysis of what occurred, comparing solutions and obtaining a contract for necessary repairs.

“We need to be able to have that agility,” Tremper said. “We need to be able to change our electromagnetic posture to be able to change, very dynamically, what we’re trying to do without losing capability along the way.”

Brig. Gen. Tad Clark, director of the Air Force’s electromagnetic spectrum superiority directorate, said upgrading old systems won’t be enough when it comes to electromagnetic warfare. The U.S., he said, needs to create faster and more resilient systems.

Clark argued that artificial intelligence and machine learning must be key components in next-generation methods.  

Temper said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated the importance of smooth electromagnetic warfare operations.

“It’s a very hard problem, if you don’t have well-trained operators,” Tremper said. “The degree of coordination and synchronization of these types of operations is such that the undertrained operator will have a harder time pulling off those types of events successfully.”

Preston Dunlap, a Pentagon official whose role was to drive technological innovation at the Department of Defense (DoD), made similar remarks this week when he publicly announced his resignation and warned that the department needs “structural change” if it is ever going to “regrow its thinning technological edge.”

Dunlap argued that the Pentagon must adopt the “mentality and capability” of Silicon Valley, specifically Musk’s SpaceX – an approach that Dunlap said allowed him to reach a number of goals during his tenure at the DoD.

“By the time the Government manages to produce something, it’s too often obsolete; no business would ever survive this way, nor should it,” Dunlap said.

“We need this kind of progress at scale. And we need it now, not tomorrow. Or it will be too late,” he warned. “So let’s be careful to not…compete with each other, when we should be competing with China.”