The US Defense Department confirmed today that it is buying Starlink satellite broadband service for use in Ukraine.
“We continue to work with a range of global partners to ensure Ukraine has the satellite and communication capabilities they need. Satellite communications constitute a vital layer in Ukraine’s overall communications network and the department contracts with Starlink for services of this type,” the Defense Department said in a statement provided to Ars and other media outlets today.
The Pentagon said it would not provide other details about contracts, capabilities, or partners because of “operational security reasons and due to the critical nature of these systems.” According to a Bloomberg report, the deal includes Starlink satellite terminals and services to be used by the Ukraine military.
Deal seems to resolve funding dispute
In September, SpaceX asked the Pentagon to fund the Ukraine government and military’s use of Starlink, saying it couldn’t afford to donate more user terminals or pay for operations indefinitely. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk backtracked on October 15, writing, “The hell with it… even though Starlink is still losing money & other companies are getting billions of taxpayer $, we’ll just keep funding Ukraine govt for free.”
At the time, SpaceX withdrew its funding request, but the Pentagon and SpaceX held talks about funding Starlink in Ukraine. Musk wrote in an October 2022 tweet that “25,300 terminals were sent to Ukraine, but, at present, only 10,630 are paying for service.”
It’s not clear when the current deal was struck. As Bloomberg’s article today notes, the Defense Department said in December that it would provide Ukraine with satellite communications terminals and services but didn’t confirm a contract with SpaceX at that time. Bloomberg wrote:
The terminals will likely be purchased under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which provides for the embattled nation’s long-term security needs. In December, the Defense Department disclosed in announcing such a funding package that it would provide satellite communications “terminals and services” to Ukraine, but didn’t conﬁrm that Musk’s company would get the contract.
Also in December, Ukraine government official Mykhailo Fedorov said that Ukraine would get 10,000 more Starlink terminals in the ensuing months thanks to a new deal with SpaceX and funding from several European countries.
SpaceX objected to “offensive” use by Ukraine
Although SpaceX provided Starlink terminals to Ukraine shortly after the Russian invasion early last year, the company objected to its service being “weaponized” by the Ukraine military. As a result, SpaceX confirmed that it took steps to prevent Ukraine’s military from using Starlink satellite Internet with drones.
SpaceX knows “the military is using them for comms, and that’s OK,” President and COO Gwynne Shotwell reportedly said in February. “But our intent was never to have them use it for offensive purposes.”
An Economist report in March said that “Starlink now uses geofencing to block the use of its terminals—not only above Russian-occupied territory inside Ukraine, but also, according to a Ukrainian military intelligence source, over water and when the receiver is moving at speeds above 100km per hour.”
Musk wrote in a February tweet that “Starlink is the communication backbone of Ukraine, especially at the front lines, where almost all other Internet connectivity has been destroyed. But we will not enable escalation of conflict that may lead to WW3.”