Ukraine’s fears that its troops will lose access to Elon Musk’s crucial Starlink internet service intensified last week after 1,300 army satellite units were taken offline, two sources familiar with the outage say. .
Small, easy-to-use satellite dishes made by Musk’s private rocket company, SpaceX, have been universally hailed as a revolutionary source of communication for the Ukrainian military, allowing it to fight and stay online even when the networks of cell phones and the Internet were destroyed. in his war against Russia.
But concerns have recently arisen over SpaceX’s reliability after funding talks emerged and outages were reported near the front lines.
CNN first reported that SpaceX sent a letter in September to the Pentagon claiming it had spent nearly $100 million funding Starlink in Ukraine and could no longer continue to do so. The letter called on the Ministry of Defense to take on more of the funding for the Ukrainian military, which it calculates would amount to tens of millions of dollars per month.
A few days after CNN’s report, Musk appeared to backtrack, saying SpaceX had withdrawn the request.
“To hell with that”, Musk tweeted“we will continue to fund the Ukrainian government free of charge.”
Negotiations between SpaceX and the Department of Defense are continuing despite Musk’s claim that SpaceX withdrew its request, according to a senior defense official.
“Negotiations are very much in progress. Everyone in our building knows we’re going to pay them,” the senior Pentagon official told CNN, adding that the department is eager to have written commitments “because we’re concerned that ‘he doesn’t change his mind’.
On Wednesday, Musk attended a ceremony for the US Space Force that also included Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Musk was also involved in his highly publicized and controversial takeover of Twitter.
Neither Musk nor SpaceX responded to a request for comment. The Ukrainian government, including the Defense Ministry, did not immediately respond.
The recent outage began on October 24 and was described by a person briefed on the situation as a “huge problem” for the Ukrainian military. The terminals had been disconnected, according to this person, for lack of funding.
The outage affected a block of 1,300 terminals which Ukraine bought from a British company in March and which were 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 as of September, the person briefed on the matter said. Eventually, they couldn’t afford to pay anymore, the person said.
Before the terminals went completely dark, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense asked its British counterparts in early October to collect the monthly bill of $3.25 million. The batch of terminals has also been replaced by growing concerns that the service can be disabled to minimize the impact, the source said.
A British official said after discussions between the departments “it was agreed that there were priority military capabilities”. Among many other channels of support, the UK has sent thousands of Ukrainian soldiers to Britain for training before returning to the front.
“We support a number of terminals that have direct tactical utility for the Ukrainian military in repelling the Russian invasion,” the British official told CNN. “We are reviewing and prioritizing all new requests in terms of the impact the contributions would have in helping Ukraine defend its people against Putin’s deplorable invasion.”
A senior Ukrainian official confirmed the outage, calling the Starlink units “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 that time, by SpaceX’s own admission, the majority of them had been wholly or partially purchased with outside funding, including from the US, Polish and UK governments. The letter claimed that these sources also paid around 30% of the monthly connectivity bill.
The terminals, which include small satellite dishes, connect to SpaceX’s constellation of satellites orbiting Earth and not only keep troops and civilians in line, but have been used to deadly effect, which is proved essential for Ukraine’s use of drones and artillery targeting.
It’s unclear exactly how many terminals the Ukrainian military operates, but the 1,300 recently closed represent a significant portion. In July, the country’s commander-in-chief wrote to Musk directly asking for more, in a letter seen by CNN, saying about 4,000 had been deployed by the military.
Earlier this month, Musk said that of the more than 25,000 terminals currently in Ukraine, less than 11,000 are paying for the service, which can cost up to $4,500 a month.
On Monday, a Pentagon spokesman declined to comment on potential contracts or agreements, but said talks were ongoing.
“We continue to discuss Ukraine’s satellite communications needs with Ukraine and companies like SpaceX and others,” Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told reporters.
Whether greater cooperation with SpaceX would give the US government stronger control over the Starlink signal in Ukraine remains unresolved. Currently, SpaceX controls where Ukrainian Starlink terminals can be used, and outages have already been reported by Ukrainian units 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 heavy criticism for arguing that Ukraine should seek peace and give up some of its territory.
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