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Elon Musk and the privatisation of defence

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“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me,” F Scott Fitzgerald wrote nearly a century ago. Even Fitzgerald could not have imagined how far the rich are now able to exert a direct influence over the lives of the less rich, and extend their reach into vital questions of security.

The scope of Elon Musk’s ambition, for example — as chronicled in Walter Isaacson’s biography published this week — is startling. It extends from transforming how we drive, via electric car company Tesla, or how we think, via his ownership of X, formerly Twitter, to ensuring the survival of the human race with his plans to colonise Mars (his SpaceX company makes rockets).

The scope of their technologies is turning the likes of Musk into geopolitical actors. Though the episode had been partly reported before, Isaacson details how the tycoon refused to allow his Starlink satellite internet system — which he has provided to Ukraine to help defend against Russia’s invasion — to be used by Kyiv’s forces for a naval drone strike on Russian ships in Crimea. Musk said he feared this could trigger a nuclear response from Moscow.

The bigger question here is not whether what Musk did was right or wrong but why a mercurial billionaire should be left in a position to take such a consequential decision at all.

A foundation of capitalism is that people should be rewarded for their enterprise, ingenuity and risk-taking abilities. World-changing technologies from the iPhone to Facebook exist thanks to entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, and the companies they and others created. But you do not need to subscribe to the caricature of billionaires as Bond villains bent on taking over the world to be queasy about how dependent governments and societies have become on these individuals.

Other public agencies such as Nasa are increasingly reliant on the likes of Musk or Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin space company to meet their goals. As the Starlink episode illustrated, what began as civilian projects can take on military or security dimensions in times of conflict. Owners may then feel they have their fingers on the button of history. After the incident in Ukraine, Musk tweeted peace proposals involving Russia keeping Crimea and Ukraine adopting neutral status, denounced by Kyiv as echoing Vladimir Putin’s talking points.

This is not just an American phenomenon. Other countries have billionaires whose technological, industrial and media assets give them enormous clout. Yet governments, even as they juggle ever greater spending pressures, should continue to invest and avoid becoming too reliant on private businesses in sectors such as defence, security and space.

The US space programme, for instance, has always been a collaboration between the best of state-directed and private-sector ingenuity, and the internet, the basis of Big Tech’s success, grew out of state-funded research and development. The balance has shifted too far towards the private; while US business investment in R&D more than tripled between 1990 and 2020, federal public R&D spending was almost flat.

Mechanisms or laws are also needed to ensure governments have oversight of services or infrastructure with military applications when required (Musk would not have faced his Starlink dilemma had the Pentagon had control from the outset of how the system was used in Ukraine, as later happened). And transformative technologies such as AI require intelligent regulation.

No one wishes to stifle the animal spirits that delivered the innovations we enjoy today. But it is the responsibility of elected leaders with their advisers, not private businesspeople, to take life-and-death decisions in times of war.

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