Ukraine’s fears that its troops could lose access to Elon Musk’s vital Starlink internet service have deepened in the past week after 1,300 army satellite units went offline, according to two sources familiar with the outage.
The small, easy-to-use satellite dishes made by Musk’s private space company, SpaceX, have been universally acclaimed as revolutionary source of communication for the Ukrainian military, allowing it to fight and stay online even as cell phone networks and the internet were destroyed in the war with Russia.
But concerns about SpaceX’s reliability have risen recently after funding discussions were revealed and frontline disruptions were reported.
CNN first reported it that SpaceX sent a letter to the Pentagon in September stating that it had spent nearly $100 million funding Starlink in Ukraine and could no longer continue to do so. The letter demanded that the Defense Department take on more of the funding for Ukraine’s military, estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars a month.
Days after the CNN report, Musk appeared to reverse course, claiming that SpaceX had withdrawn the request.
“To hell with it,” Musk tweeted“we will continue to finance the Ukrainian government for free.”
Negotiations between SpaceX and the Department of Defense continue despite Musk’s claim that SpaceX has withdrawn its request, according to a senior defense official.
“Negotiations are very ongoing. Everyone in our building knows we will pay them,” the senior Pentagon official told CNN, adding that the department is eager to have written commitments “because we fear he will change his mind.”
Musk attended a ceremony for the US Space Force on Wednesday that also included Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Musk has also been involved in the high profile of him and controversial takeover of Twitter.
Neither Musk nor SpaceX responded to a request for comment. The Ukrainian government, including the defense ministry, did not respond immediately.
The recent outage began on October 24 and was described by one person familiar with the situation as a “huge problem” for the Ukrainian military. The terminals had been disconnected, this person said, due to lack of funds.
The outage affected a block of 1,300 terminals that Ukraine bought from a British company in March and 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, pushing the total cost to nearly $20 million by 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, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry asked its British counterparts in early October to collect its $3.25 million monthly bill. The batch of terminals has also been replaced due to growing concern that the service could be shut down, in order to minimize the impact, the source said.
A British official said after discussions between ministries “it was agreed there were higher priority military capabilities”. Among many other channels of support, the UK has sent thousands of Ukrainian troops to Britain for training before they return to the front lines.
“We are supporting a series of terminals that have direct tactical utility for the Ukrainian military in repelling an invasion of Russia,” the British official told CNN. “We consider and prioritize all new requests in terms of the impact contributions would have in supporting Ukraine to defend its people against Putin’s regrettable encroachment.”
A senior Ukrainian official confirmed the outage, calling Starlink units “very important” to Ukraine’s fight against Russia.
The September letter from SpaceX the Pentagon said there were nearly 20,000 Starlink terminals in Ukraine. At the time, by SpaceX’s own admission, most of them had been purchased in whole or in part with external funding, including from the US, Polish and UK governments. The letter said those sources also paid about 30% of the monthly connectivity bill.
The terminals, which include small satellite dishes, connect to SpaceX’s constellation of earth-orbiting satellites and not only keep troops and civilians online, but have been used to lethal effect, proving vital to Ukraine’s use of drones and artillery.
It’s not clear exactly how many terminals the Ukrainian military is operating, but the recently closed 1,300 represent a significant proportion. In July the country’s commander-in-chief wrote directly to Musk 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 now in Ukraine, fewer than 11,000 were paying for the service, which can run up to $4,500 a month.
A Pentagon spokesman on Monday declined to comment on potential contracts or deals, but said talks were ongoing.
“We continue to discuss Ukraine’s satellite communication needs with Ukraine and with companies like SpaceX and others,” Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told reporters.
Whether increased cooperation with SpaceX would give the US government stronger control over the Starlink signal in Ukraine was not answered. SpaceX currently monitors where Ukrainian Starlink terminals can be used, and outages have previously been reported by Ukrainian units near the front as they advanced and cleared Russian-held areas.
As a result, Musk’s signal control gives him significant influence on the battlefield at a time when he has come under heavy criticism for arguing that Ukraine should sue for peace and give up some of its territory.