Ukraine’s fears that its troops could lose access to Elon Musk’s crucial Starlink Internet service grew last week after 1,300 military satellite units went offline, according to two sources familiar with the outage.
Small, easy-to-use satellite dishes made by Musk’s private rocket company SpaceX have been universally hailed as a game-changing communications source for Ukraine’s military, allowing them to fight and stay online despite the destruction of cellphone and internet networks. In his war with Russia.
But concerns have grown recently about SpaceX’s reliability after revelations of funding disputes and reports of disruptions near the front lines.
CNN first reported that SpaceX sent a letter to the Pentagon in September saying it had spent nearly $100 million in funding for Starlink in Ukraine and could no longer do so. The letter called for the Department of Defense to take over more funding for the Ukrainian military, estimating that it would collect tens of millions of dollars a month.
After CNN’s report, Musk appeared to reverse course, saying SpaceX had withdrawn the order.
“Of all,” Musk he tweeted“We will continue to fund the Ukrainian government for free.”
Negotiations between SpaceX and the Defense Department are continuing despite Musk saying SpaceX withdrew the request, according to a senior defense official.
“Negotiations are in full swing. Everybody in our building knows we’re going to pay them,” the senior Pentagon official told CNN, adding that the department is eager to get commitments in writing because “we’re worried he’s going to change his mind.”
On Wednesday, Musk attended an event for the US Space Force, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley, who is also chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Musk has been involved in his own high-profile and controversial Twitter rant.
Neither Musk nor SpaceX responded to a request for comment. The Ukrainian government, including the Defense Ministry, did not immediately respond.
The latest standoff began on October 24 and a person briefed on the situation described it as a “huge problem” for the Ukrainian military. The terminals were disconnected, this person said, due to lack of funding.
The outage affected a block of 1,300 terminals bought by Ukraine from a British company in March and used for combat-related operations.
SpaceX was charging the Ukrainian military $2,500 a month to keep each of the 1,300 units connected, bringing the total cost to nearly $20 million by September, the person briefed on the matter said. In the end, they couldn’t afford it anymore, the person said.
Before the terminals went completely dark, the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine requested in early October to receive a monthly bill of 3.25 million dollars from its British counterparts. The range of terminals was also rotated as concerns grew that the service could be shut down to minimize the impact, the source said.
A British official said in inter-ministerial discussions “it was agreed that military capabilities were a higher priority”. Among many other forms of aid, the UK has flown thousands of Ukrainian soldiers to Britain for training before returning to the front lines.
“We support a number of terminals that have direct tactical utility for the Ukrainian military to deter Russian invasion,” the British official told CNN. “We consider all new requests and prioritize contributions based on the impact it would have on helping Ukraine defend its people against Putin’s unfortunate invasion.”
A senior Ukrainian official confirmed the suspension, saying the Starlink units are “very important” to Ukraine’s fight against Russia.
SpaceX’s September letter to the Pentagon said there were nearly 20,000 Starlink terminals in Ukraine. At the time, by SpaceX’s own admission, most of them were bought in whole or in part with external funding, including from the governments of the US, Poland and the UK. The letter said these sources also paid about 30% of the monthly connectivity bill.
The terminals, which feature small satellite dishes, connect to SpaceX’s constellation of earth-orbiting satellites and have not only kept troops and civilians online, but have been used with deadly effect to make Ukraine a vital target for drones and artillery.
It’s not clear exactly how many terminals the Ukrainian military is operating, but the 1,300 that were shut down recently make up a significant portion. In July, the country’s commander-in-chief wrote directly to Musk asking for more, in a letter seen by CNN, saying the military had deployed about 4,000.
Earlier this month, Musk said that less than 11,000 of the more than 25,000 terminals in Ukraine were paying for the service, which can cost as much as $4,500 per month.
A Pentagon spokesman on Monday declined to comment on potential contracts or agreements, but said talks are ongoing.
“We continue to discuss Ukraine’s satellite communications needs with Ukraine and with companies like SpaceX and others,” Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told reporters.
Whether greater cooperation with SpaceX will give the US government greater control over Ukraine’s Starlink signal remains unanswered. SpaceX currently controls where Ukraine’s Starlink terminals can be used and Ukrainian units have previously reported disruptions near the front as they advance and liberate Russian-held areas.
As a result, Musk’s control of the signal gives him significant influence on the battlefield, at a time when he has come under fire for arguing that Ukraine should seek peace and give up part of its territory.