Ukraine’s fears that its troops could lose access to Elon Musk’s crucial Starlink internet service increased over the past week after 1,300 of the military’s satellite units went offline, according to two sources familiar with the outage.
The small, easy-to-use satellite dishes made by Musk’s privately owned rocket company SpaceX have been universally hailed as a groundbreaking communications source for the Ukrainian military, enabling it to fight and stay online even as cell phone and internet networks have been destroyed in its war with Russia.
But lately, concerns about SpaceX’s reliability have arisen after discussions over funding came to light and power outages were reported near the front lines.
CNN first reported that SpaceX sent a letter to the Pentagon in September claiming it had spent nearly $100 million on Starlink in Ukraine and that it could no longer continue to do so. The letter asked the Defense Ministry to take over more funding for the Ukrainian military, which it calculated would amount to tens of millions of dollars a month.
Days after the CNN report, Musk appeared to be changing course, claiming that SpaceX had withdrawn the request.
“Hell With It”, Musk tweeted“we will just continue to fund the Ukrainian government for free.”
Negotiations between SpaceX and the Department of Defense continue despite Musk’s claim that SpaceX has withdrawn its request, a senior defense official said.
“Negotiations are in full swing. Everyone in our building knows we’re going to pay them,” the senior Pentagon official told CNN, adding that the department would like to make written commitments “because we’re afraid he’ll change his mind.”
On Wednesday, Musk attended a ceremony for the US Space Force, which also included Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Musk is also embroiled in his high-profile and controversial takeover of Twitter.
Neither Musk nor SpaceX responded to a request for comment. The Ukrainian government, including the Ministry of Defense, did not immediately respond.
The recent outage began on October 24 and was described by a person briefed about the situation as a “major problem” for the Ukrainian military. The terminals were disconnected, this person said, due to a lack of funding.
The outage affected a block of 1,300 terminals that Ukraine bought from a British company in March and was used for combat-related operations.
SpaceX charged the Ukrainian military $2,500 a month to keep each of the 1,300 units connected, bringing the total cost to nearly $20 million in September, the person briefed on the matter said. Eventually, they could no longer afford to pay, the person said.
Before the terminals went completely dark, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense made a request to their British counterparts in early October to pick up the $3.25 million monthly bill. The array 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 after talks between the ministries “it was agreed that there were higher priority military capabilities”. Among many other channels of support, the UK has flown thousands of Ukrainian troops to Britain for training before returning to the front lines.
“We support a number of terminals that have a direct tactical use for the Ukrainian military in repelling the Russian invasion,” the British official told CNN. “We are considering and prioritizing any new requests in terms of the impact that would contribute to 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 states that there are nearly 20,000 Starlink terminals in Ukraine. At the time, as SpaceX itself admits, most of them were bought in whole or in part with outside funding, including from the US, Polish and British governments. The letter claimed those sources also paid about 30% of the monthly connectivity bill.
The terminals, which contain tiny satellite dishes, connect to SpaceX’s constellation of orbiting satellites and not only keep troops and civilians online, but have also been used to deadly consequences, which has proved critical to the use of drones. and artillery by Ukraine.
It is unclear exactly how many terminals the Ukrainian military operates, but the 1,300 that have been closed recently represent a significant portion. In July, the country’s commander-in-chief wrote directly to Musk 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 now in Ukraine, fewer than 11,000 were paying for the service, which could be as much as $4,500 per month.
On Monday, a Pentagon spokesperson declined to comment on possible contracts or agreements, but said talks are ongoing.
“We continue to discuss Ukraine’s satellite communications needs with Ukraine and companies such as SpaceX and others,” Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told reporters.
Whether greater partnership with SpaceX would give the US government more control over the Starlink signal in Ukraine has not been answered. SpaceX is currently monitoring where to use its Starlink terminals in Ukraine, and power cuts have previously been reported by Ukrainian units at the front as they advanced and liberated Russian-occupied territories.
As a result, Musk’s control of the signal gives him a lot of influence on the battlefield at a time when he was heavily criticized for claiming that Ukraine should advocate for peace and give up some of its territory.