Big Tech & Geopolitics. The Starlink-Ukraine Dossier

Field-tested in the Ukrainian conflict, Starlink, the sat communication network  owned by one of Elon Musk’s high-tech companies, could find its way into the Japanese military apparatus. Big Tech enter the arena flanking traditional defence contractors in support of US international relations strategy by Andrea Monti – Intially published in Italian by

According to the official position of the defense minister Hamada Yasukazu, Japan’s interest in Starlink is based on the need to increase the resilience of the Japan Defence Force’s communication system. However, it is likely that, although if not publicly stated, a concurrent goal may be the achievement of a better integration with Western partners (mainly the US, and also UK) as an implementation of the new national security strategy, a component of the Japan-UK-Italian project for a new jet fighter, and a response to the increased Western (and Italian) presence in the Pacific area.

The use of military supplies and technology sharing to cement alliances or tame the military potential of satellite States is nothing new. As it is no news that Big Tech (and also smaller, high-tech companies) have become a crucial component of armed forces’ projection capability.

This is particularly true of the communication and data-transfer sector, whose importance is growing, to make it work increasingly autonomous weapons systems and equipments that, also if manned, can not operate efficiently without exchanging a substantial quantity of information in a rapid and secure manner.

From this point of view, therefore, including a private satellite network into a command & control infrastructure of a foreign country is almost inevitable and, to some extent, welcomed by the USA, given how much it relies on technological superiority as a means of managing military alliances, and given that it may find it useful to resort to proxy technologies developed and managed by private entities.

However, Starlink’s field deployment has happened in a peculiar way. Initially Elon Musk offered the use of the sat network to the Ukrainian government for free of charge, in what could be seen as an act of generosity to support the good fight.

Notwithstanding, the free use of Starlink was not unlimited in terms of use cases and time. On the one end, the company unilaterally prevented Starlink from being used to control drones and other UAVs. On the other hand, when it announced, about a month ago, that it was not possible to continue giving out the service for free, after a tender the Pentagon decided to foot the bill.

It is unlikely that Elon Musk’s decision was made completely independently of the US government. However, it is also reasonable to assume that the fact that SpaceX is not a State-owned company has given it a degree of autonomy from the executive branch.

If this is the case, than the idea that the techno-neomedievalism model (the idea of a multipolar system in which Big Tech interact with sovereign States on an equal basis), is much more than an academic theory. It provides a lens through which to view at the impact of the business strategies of the US high-tech sector on the national interests of third countries.

It is not possible to establish a cause and effect relationship between the use of Starlink in the Ukrainian conflict and the Japanese government’s decision to test its use in the JSDF apparatus. From the outside, however, the timing suggests that the use of Starlink in the Ukrainian scenario was a powerful marketing lever to convince other countries – now Japan, tomorrow someone else – to buy it.

However, and here the techno-neomedievalism paradigm comes in, the analysis of the Starlink-Ukraine dossier challenges the rationality of involving foreign private actors in the operation of critical parts of a defence infrastructure, without reserving an effective control over these technologies.

It would be hard to sustain the decision to deploy a technology, and lately discover – or already knowing – that it cannot be used to its full potential when it matters most, i.e. in times of crisis when the risk of losing operational efficiency should be minimised.

On the other hand, making national military technologies interoperable with those of foreign private entities would imply, for those countries with an established military and technological industry, the necessity to share secrets and confidential information.

In a broader sense, the Starlink dossier suggests a final observation: whether they like it or not, states have to accept that the line between defence and private research and technology transfer is becoming increasingly thin. This should be the basis for building a public innovation policy that is not confined to categories that history has finally rendered obsolete.

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