Pentagon exploring communications options for Ukrainian military as Starlink service threatens pullout
Stars and Stripes October 14, 2022
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is exploring strategic communications options for Ukraine’s military amid fears that the vital satellite internet system Starlink could be pulled from the battlefield.
A senior U.S. defense official said Friday that the Pentagon was in ongoing talks with SpaceX, the rocket company that operates Starlink, and is also discussing partnerships with other satellite communication companies to keep Ukraine online as it tries to beat back Russia’s invasion.
SpaceX has indicated it could stop funding Starlink due to mounting costs, raising alarm that Ukrainian troops’ main mode of communication could be in jeopardy.
“I don’t think you can overestimate or overemphasize the impact that being able to communicate has,” said a senior U.S. military official speaking on condition of anonymity. “One of the first things you try to do in a fight is to reduce your opponent’s ability to communicate.”
Russian forces have repeatedly jammed signals and phone service on front lines in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions to disrupt communication and hamper Ukrainian defense operations.
Elon Musk, SpaceX’s owner, said Friday that his company cannot indefinitely fund its Starlink internet service in Ukraine, pointing to expenses of nearly $20 million a month. The 20,000 Starlink satellite units donated to Ukraine have cost $80 million for SpaceX and will exceed $100 million by the end of the year, he said.
"SpaceX is not asking to recoup past expenses, but also cannot fund the existing system indefinitely *and* send several thousand more terminals that have data usage up to 100X greater than typical households. This is unreasonable," Musk wrote on Twitter.
The U.S. military official said the Starlink communications network has been "exceptionally effective on the battlefield” and is a “huge” tool for planning and coordination. It also serves as a crucial lifeline for civilians in combat zones where cell phone and internet service have been destroyed.
“Let’s be honest. Like it or not, @elonmusk helped us survive the most critical moments of war,” Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, wrote Friday on Twitter. “[Urkaine] will find a solution to keep #Starlink working. We expect that the company will provide stable connection till the end of negotiations.”
Pentagon officials declined to disclose whether discussions with SpaceX are related to payment but said talks with the company predate Thursday’s report by CNN that SpaceX is asking the military to contribute tens of millions of dollars per month for Starlink.
“We’re assessing our options and trying to do what we can to help keep these SATCOM communications, to ensure that these communications remain for the Ukrainian forces,” the senior defense official said. “There’s not just SpaceX, there are other entities that we can certainly partner with.”
The official said she was “unaware” if the U.S. government has paid for Starlink since the war began in February. SpaceX has implied it donated the service to Ukraine as a charitable gesture.
The Pentagon is scrambling to shore up Ukrainian communication capabilities as Kyiv’s forces continue to press multiple counteroffensives, most notably in the Kherson region. Troops are advancing toward the southern city on three lines and are forcing Russians to “make some decisions in terms of how they choose to defend,” said the senior military official.
The Kremlin continues to retaliate this week for its military setbacks with hundreds of missile attacks on civilian targets across Ukraine, including electricity substations, bridges and other infrastructure, the official said. Ukraine has managed to intercept much of the barrage and on Thursday either partially or fully shot down four missiles fired from Russian ships in the Black Sea.