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Is Elon Musk Fit to Run SpaceX?

Elon Musk’s role as CEO of SpaceX has come under harsh scrutiny following reports that he deliberately disrupted a Ukrainian attack on the Russian naval base at Sevastopol. 

War in Ukraine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Ukraine's military firing artillery. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Elon Musk’s role as CEO of SpaceX has come under harsh scrutiny following reports that he deliberately disrupted a Ukrainian attack on the Russian naval base at Sevastopol. 

The story continues to develop, but it appears that Musk intervened to prevent a group of Ukrainian maritime drones from using Starlink communications and navigation technology to attack the Russian fleet. Some of the drones were apparently lost in the effort because of the severing of communications. According to Musk’s own account, he believed — following conversations with Russian officials — that a successful attack might spur nuclear retaliation by Russia and the escalation of the war. This accords with previous reporting about Elon’s intervention against earlier Ukrainian offensive operations. SpaceX terminals ceased operation as Ukrainian troops crossed into territory occupied by the Russians. This seemed to suggest that Musk was arrogating to himself the right to determine the extent to which Ukraine could recapture territory that Russia had conquered earlier in the war. 

Musk’s personality, his politics, and the role of SpaceX in the U.S. defense industrial complex now sit at the center of a complicated set of questions about the extent to which U.S. national security policy should be made to rest upon the whims of mercurial titans of industry.

Elon the Right Wing Crank? 

One alarming possibility is that Musk’s increasingly evident alt-right sympathies have pushed him in the direction of covert support for the Putin regime, widely beloved of authoritarian rightists around the world. Many of the figures that Musk publicly associates with (including his henchman David Sacks) have grown increasingly pro-Russia over the last few months. Most recently, Musk has virtually declared war on the Anti-Defamation League, accusing the organization of trying to destroy the advertising base of X. It is not inconceivable that Musk, ever more angry about “wokeness,” has developed a degree of appreciation for Vladimir Putin’s traditionalist, illiberal Russian regime.

Much of this appears to involve an increasing fascination with authoritarianism. Like Donald Trump, Musk has expressed frustration with the democratic decision-making process, especially as regards regulation. Like Trump, Musk appears to believe that he can develop a personal relationship with authoritarian leaders that will allow him to cut deals, notwithstanding the realities of geopolitics. And like many figures on the alt-right, there seems to be some evidence that Musk was radicalized by the limited lockdowns practiced by the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, we need to keep in mind that Musk’s SpaceX has enabled Ukrainian military operations for most of the war. SpaceX’s communications and surveillance capabilities have offered Ukraine a critical advantage, one that Russia could neither replicate, nor defeat. If ideology is the problem, it hasn’t actually stopped Musk from supplying Ukraine with the capabilities it needs to fight the war.

The parallels with Henry Ford are too obvious to ignore. Ford was a committed and virulent anti-semite who expressed, from time to time, considerable sympathy for Imperial Germany in the First World War and Nazi Germany in the Second. However, Ford also turned over the substantial industrial capacity of the Ford Motor Company to the war effort, eventually producing thousands of the bombers that would destroy urban Germany and Japan.

Elon the Idiot? 

An alternative (or complementary) explanation is that Musk is deeply ignorant of international affairs and of war. He has never taken the time to study these affairs in depth and is generally unsuited to instruction in questions of social science. He has no idea of the dynamics of escalation in conflict and is likely to believe whatever he is told, especially if the source is “edgy.”

Some have argued that it is impossible for anyone to be stupid enough to believe Russian officials when they claim that an attack on Sevastopol would produce nuclear war. While it is true that this is an almost shockingly stupid thing for a person to believe, Musk fancies himself to be a self-made billionaire who succeeded because he believed in a great many unreasonable and absurd things. Ronan Farrow’s recent portrait of Musk is somewhat unflattering on personal terms, and it is quite alarming in policy terms. Farrow also suggested Musk has abused a variety of legal and illegal drugs, although this hardly puts him in unusual company. 

To offer just one example, the claim that “we will not enable escalation of conflict that may lead to WW3” requires an understanding of the dynamics of escalation in a conflict, and of why a nation might resort to steps that would produce “World War III.” There is not the faintest indication that Musk has studied any of these things or has any idea what the words mean. 

To point out the obvious, Russian officials probably are not the most reliable sources available on the question of how Russia would respond to a conventional attack on a Russian military installation. This is so intuitively obvious that it’s hard to fathom how anyone could fail to understand it. But Musk — like many titans of industry — tends to believe that if he believes a thing, then it must be true. 

Musk’s proposed peace plan, involving referenda in Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia, was roundly ridiculed by diplomatic professionals as naïve and unworkable. Musk did not understand that it was naïve and unworkable, because he has no grip on the long history of difficulties associated with developing, managing, and executing referenda under terms of occupation. 

“If I believe it, it must be true,” is a strange twist on the old Nixonian idea “it’s not illegal if the president does it,” but it’s hardly unusual for titans of industry to believe absurd things. The largely apolitical personal eccentricities of Howard Hughes certainly affected the willingness of the U.S. government to work with his company during and after World War II, but the upside of being incredibly rich is that no one will tell you to your face that you’re ignorant or insane. 

Should the U.S. Nationalize SpaceX?

Evidently, there is a disconnect between how Elon Musk understands the war in Ukraine and how the U.S. government understands it. However, the current predicament that the United States and Ukraine find themselves in regarding Musk is a consequence of a decision to leave much space infrastructure investment to the private sector. This was and is a defensible decision. Government innovation in this sector had atrophied, and it made sense to open the opportunity for private money to make an impact. SpaceX hasn’t quite singlehandedly transformed the nature of space-based combat capabilities, but it has certainly changed the terms of the game. But even if we grant that opening space up for private exploration has been broadly successful, concentrating space capabilities in a single company under a mercurial leader is surely far from optimal. 

Does this mean that the solution is for the U.S. to nationalize SpaceX?  For better or worse the United States has long relied on privately owned firms to manage its defense industrial base, part of a unique and long-standing relationship between government and industry that has characterized America’s unique defense industrial base. Nationalizing SpaceX might feel satisfying, but it would carry long-term risks, both for the company itself and for the broader set of relationships between the U.S. government and major defense providers. 

We can grant the point that Musk’s assessment of risks is different from that of the U.S. government, but people disagree with Washington on national security matters all the time, and the government is not always on the right side of that conversation. Similarly, that Elon Musk is demanding payment for services rendered in Ukraine is not particularly problematic — the U.S. government has long contracted for goods and services from private industry. Lockheed Martin isn’t giving weapons to Ukraine for free, and there should be no expectation that SpaceX would give away its goods and services for free. It is also clearly in the national interest for the U.S. to protect SpaceX and similar firms from Chinese and Russian infiltration and espionage.

That said, it is a problem that a mercurial billionaire with alt-right sympathies has been placed in a position where he can make consequential national security decisions without any democratic input or oversight. If the government believes that Elon Musk is operating SpaceX on behalf of the Russian government, then it has a variety of tools to discipline Musk (including public opprobrium, to which he seems sensitive). It can even potentially remove SpaceX from his control. Reminding Musk of his vulnerability to these tools would seem to be the best option in the short term.

About the Author 

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph. D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020), and most recently Waging War with Gold: National Security and the Finance Domain Across the Ages (Lynne Rienner, 2023). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money. Farley is a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. 

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.



  1. Ken Shultis

    September 11, 2023 at 11:47 am

    The value of SpaceX, besides offering service to remote locations, is that it is currently beyond the reach of woke corporations and government denial of service. I am not particularly a fan of Musk because I suspect he is compromised by the CCP but he is CEO and primary shareholder of a private company. He is not responsible to advance any wars and would be well-advised to stay away from these actions. Why wouldn’t Russia start shooting down his satellites if his company enables attacks on their nation? They tolerate (barely) his aid to Ukraine, but there is a red line here. I think he should stop supporting Ukraine altogether. Why is it important to wage war on Russia? Was there a declaration of war that I somehow missed? Without a declaration of war, or even an Authorization for Use of Military Force, what is the legal basis for nationalization of private assets?

  2. TheDon

    September 11, 2023 at 11:56 am

    You just have displayed your complete ignorance of aerospace engineering and complex systems.
    Are all 1945 authors complete democratic regurgitation idiots.
    China would welcome him in open arms.
    Stick to misreporting Ukraine war.

  3. pagar

    September 11, 2023 at 12:21 pm

    SpaceX can live without musk and highly likely biden’s woke administration will make a move against him in next to no time.

    Thus musk must now move his money to a safe place far away from the US otherwise it’s gonna meet the same fate as afghanistan’s central bank money which has been seized by biden.

    Musk could end up like trump and get hit by multiple indictments, so be must be prepared.

    US has become an ochlocratic state where the woke mob rules.

    Biden has waylaid money meant for protecting american citizens and used it for assisting in the killing in eastern ukraine.

    This is how the whispering from pearl nelson has turned US into a police state fully worthy of third world status.

  4. Commentar

    September 11, 2023 at 1:02 pm

    Musk is going to get his deserts once the fixer upper returns from his trip aboard.

    Biden is right now visiting in ‘nam, spewing a lot of big hot air nonsense while over there.

    He says without blinking an eyelid that he doesn’t seek to contain china, so why visit nam in the first place.

    He could have paid a visit to Haiti where people are currently suffering unspeakably from unrelenting crime.

    But no, he has to visit a commie place where he’s mouthing things only Reuters would have no trouble believing.

    Musk needs to think what is going to happen once Biden returns to Washington.

    He needs to think of a worst-case scenario and what are the options available to him when the fixer upper comes back.

  5. El Steverino

    September 11, 2023 at 2:48 pm

    I can’t believe the insanity of the war mongering neo-cons, particularly with regards to this matter. Elon Mush refused to allow Ukraine to use HIS network to allow Ukraine to launch attacks against Russia and therefore he is no longer fit to run his own company!

    This is absolutely insanity. We now have people calling for the appropriation of a privately owned and traded business because of the founder and CEO’s suspected “alt-right” political beliefs and for refusal to allow it’s resources to be used for another country’s war effort.

    Who needs commies when you have people like Dr. Farley?

    Oh, and yes, sinking the Black Sea Fleet would have led to a nuclear reprisal. You would have to be an absolute madman to think that the Russians would not have responded with nuclear weapons to an attack which destroyed a dozen or so ships.

    The war mongers have gone completely off the rails. This is utter insanity.

  6. ericji

    September 11, 2023 at 3:15 pm

    Musk is as much Alt-Right as Farley is. The Left went from idolizing Musk to hating him once he purchased Twitter/X and exposed government misdeeds. To the Left that makes him a part of the enemy, the contemptible Right. What it really means is anyone against government censorship, etc., is an enemy. Farley is following his marching orders.

    If the government takes over Musk’s operations, kiss goodbye efficient, effective, and cost-effective space exploration.

  7. GhostTomahawk

    September 11, 2023 at 5:03 pm

    Maybe Musk didn’t like Nazis utilizing his services to commit genocide? Maybe he would prefer his services were used by the people and not the military?

    Just a thought. Every offramp to peace has been missed because war is real profitable for the west at the cost of Ukrainian blood that noone hearts out cares about… how many dead Ukrainians now?? No one knows…

  8. YS

    September 11, 2023 at 7:13 pm

    Elon is the only sane human having to navigate the swamp of homicidal sociopaths hellbent on ending humankind as soon as possible.

    That much is clear to everyone. He may not be perfect and makes mistakes, so does everyone. Disabling Starlink over Crimea wasn’t a mistake but was very rational at that point.

    Ukraine has proven to be an anti-advertisement for MIC, thus recent delay of sending Abrams there.

    The article and pure propaganda piece – assume nothing, question eveything.

  9. Tamerlane

    September 11, 2023 at 11:01 pm

    It’s HIS company. Oh, and the USA is not at war with Russia… we aren’t a party to the war, remember Farley?

  10. No use for a name

    September 12, 2023 at 12:48 pm

    These comments are certifiably insane and more entertaining than extracting woke tears from MAGA eyeballs.

  11. Sofronie the Monk

    September 12, 2023 at 1:14 pm

    @GhostTomahawk: Yes, Ukrainians should simply accept peace and go back under Russian dominance. And then the rest of Eastern Europe as well, right? After all, we’re “Russia’s backyard” and we belong there.

    But it’s OK, after a few more tens of thousands of Russians will be killed, perhaps they will learn their lesson. The Western powers did in Africa.

    @El Steverino: “sinking the Black Sea Fleet would have led to a nuclear reprisal.” Just like any kind of moral support for Ukraine led to it? Or even calling it a war? Sending even humanitarian help? Sending guns? Sending MLRS? Sending tanks? Sending Patriots? Sending F-16s? Taking back any part of the 4 oblasts they forcefully incorporated and declared “Russian soil”? Look, Kherson was liberated a year ago. Where are the nuclear missiles?

    Time and again, Russia has threatened with “immediate nuclear annihilation” for the most trivial things. Why? Because that’s the only thing they still have left protecting them. That’s it. “Second strongest army in the world (actually the first)”, right?

  12. joe from Lowell

    September 12, 2023 at 2:10 pm

    Russia would quite possibly face a nuclear counter-reprisal if it used nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Its friends that are allowing the country to stay afloat would all back away (except maybe Kim). It would immediately lose the living hell out of the public relations war it’s fighting for international opinion, something that is obviously important to the Russian state.

    Y’all are saying Russia would open itself up to those things over a drone boat naval attack on ships in a war zone. Not an existential threat – a conventional attack on warships in the theater of the war they’re fighting.

    Farley is right; you’d have to be an idiot to think that might even possibly be true. Either a dumb person, or someone who just doesn’t have an education at all in international security issues, the nuclear ladder, or any relevant subjects.

  13. Joe Duarte, PhD

    September 12, 2023 at 2:18 pm

    This is bizarre. I thought 1945 was a different kind of site, must’ve confused it with another.

    The uneducated political sniping has no place in the article. The author’s use of “alt-right” and “authoritarian” betray a deep ignorance of the political and intellectual landscape.

    If someone is demanding that a civilian allow their property to be used for combat purposes, for offensive strikes, by a foreign country in a war to which we are not a party, the authoritarian is the person making the demand.

    If someone is floating the idea of stealing/seizing a company because the owner doesn’t conform to their (authoritarian, warmongering) political ideology, obviously that person is authoritarian, and extremely so. Calling other people authoritarian in this context makes no sense.

    Smearing Americans as “pro-Russia” or “pro-X”, where X is some foreign leader or country, is rarely justified and usually unAmerican. Musk has not related any particular interest in or admiration for Putin. The choice space for thinking adults goes well beyond pro-Putin or obsessive pro-Ukraine warmongering. I want nothing to do with this war because of the maniacal fascist rhetoric coming from the American left, the censorship of Russian perspectives/media, the obvious reasons for the war, etc. It’s an incredibly strange choice of wars for Americans to be obsessed with, or to use as a weapon against one’s fellow Americans.

    His life, his company, his satellite constellation, his decision. This is America, and Farley’s authoritarian political ideology is incompatible with the ideals that animated this country’s founding.

  14. William

    September 12, 2023 at 2:43 pm

    With an open mind one can see Musk’s decision, at that time, on the use of Starlink by Ukraine closely parallels those decisions being made by Washington and NATO allies. The Russians have the capability of physically destroying these satellites. I would have love it if the fleet in Sevastopol was destroyed, but why didn’t Biden give Ukraine the weapons to do it? Fear of a tactical nuclear response?

  15. ATM

    September 12, 2023 at 3:02 pm

    Furthermore Ukraine is desperate, they are walking dead and are looking at ways to force NATO into direct war with Russia to save them. Zalinsky has lost whatever little mind he had left and could not care less if he provokes wwiii and nuclear holocaust on the rest of the planet. Why would Zelensky think that Sinking the Black sea fleet is a good idea? Biden is playing into this hand by giving Ukraine the 300 mile range missiles he asked for. We have to wonder where Biden is going with this, giving a madman weapons that will be used in a provocative way.

  16. jeff

    September 12, 2023 at 3:39 pm

    This article scares me. To think that the government would seize a private company when they disagree with the politics of the owner is insane. I would not be surprised if Musk is charged with crimes against the government with the current administration. This writer would do well in Biden’s cabinet.

  17. Nikki4Prez

    September 12, 2023 at 5:17 pm

    all the people licking Musk’s boots in the comment section are completely hilarious. Please keep filling your diapers whenever someone mentions Musk is an irresponsible manbaby, keep the chain going!

    Farley remains the best writer on this site.

  18. mawendt

    September 12, 2023 at 8:34 pm

    Musk, Starlink, any civilian, private entity has no obligation to assist in the conduct of war. In fact, it is against the law in most countries for a corporation or individual to participate by providing direct support without express government approval.

    A more appropriate article would be title “Who Thought Robert Farley Is Fit To Comment On 1945?”

    I think my answer would be: Fire That Person.

    Farley has joined the ranks of the loathsome, those who promote the suppression of freedom and oppression of those who disagree. So also the person that approved this bit of garbage here. Oh, how the mighty 1945 continues to slip into absurdity.

    Why does he have any forum here?

  19. TheDon

    September 12, 2023 at 9:14 pm

    Oh, like Biden could protect Elon from Putin.
    Survival instinct.

    By the way, why doesnt the military let them use their satellites?

  20. Scottfs

    September 12, 2023 at 10:08 pm

    Congrats Farley!
    This is one of the most idiotic pieces I’ve read this month (I read Daily Kos, Huffpost, etc so I’m familiar with asinine pieces).

    Musk is pro-Russia? Trump is a Bad Man (that’s the best you can do?).

    Really, do better or pull up stakes and go home, dude.

  21. Sofronie the Monk

    September 12, 2023 at 10:15 pm

    @ATM: “We have to wonder where Biden is going with this, giving a madman weapons that will be used in a provocative way.” The same “provocative” way the Ukrainians used HIMARS, for example, by hitting Russian supply dumps and command centers? Or Patriots, remember when those were supposed to “force” Russia into a nuclear response as well, because a purely DEFENSIVE system was “provocative” to Russia? But again, they’ve been spewing crap about the AEGIS Ashore basis for years: Tomahawks, nuclear weapons etc. Hell, even Moldavia receiving THREE unarmed APCs was “provocative”. Tell me, is Russia that fragile that everyone has to walk on egg shells around it and give it everything it wants, else it holds its breath and “immediate nuclear annihilation”?

  22. Duke

    September 13, 2023 at 9:58 am

    The US government can and should seize a private company when the actions of its owner or CEO have adverse national security implications. Musk should be placed under close supervision with a ‘second strike you’re gone’ note attached to his ankle monitor.

  23. David N. Tate

    September 13, 2023 at 10:35 am

    The short answer to the question “Is Elon Musk fit to run SpaceX” is “Yes.” Space X is a private company that whose main focus is commerce.

    In answer to the question “Should the United States Nationalize SpaceX” is a resounding “No.” The United States government should not nationalize either SpaceX or any other company.

  24. Sofronie the Monk

    September 14, 2023 at 8:19 am

    Oh, look, Ukraine just damaged two important Russian warships (at least one of them likely to be destroyed). So I guess this means the nuclear missiles are coming? When can we expect them?

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