Elon Musk’s SpaceX has secured US funding to provide satellite internet to the Ukrainian military as its founder shed expressed doubts about how his company’s terminals were deployed in a major conflict.
The Department of Defense has agreed to buy Starlink terminals from Musk, but has not disclosed how much it will buy or how much it will pay for the service.
Musk had complained before SpaceX made too little money from its various contracts that saw at least 20,000 terminals used for a mix of civilian, humanitarian and military purposes.
While the total number of terminals is unknown, hundreds are destroyed each month in the fighting and must be replaced. SpaceX is expected to be funded from the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which has funded procurement of weapons and training to modernize the Ukrainian military in its fight against the Russian military.
“Satellite communications is a vital layer in Ukraine’s overall communications network and the department contracts with Starlink for this type of service,” the Pentagon said in a statement Thursday.
Musk accessed SpaceX’s low-orbit satellites in Ukraine in late February 2022 in response to a public plea from a Ukrainian minister. But he has since expressed reservations about the cost and complexity of ongoing service.
A mix of terminals have poured into the country since the start of the war, including some donated by SpaceX, bought by Ukraine’s allies such as Poland and the UK, and others crowdfunded by supporters. People familiar with those contracts said pricing depended on several factors, including whether the terminals were intended for civilian or military use.
Connecting a small antenna to a 35 cm high terminal, the units have enabled the Ukrainian military to conduct data-intensive drone surveillance and maintain communications along a frontline. They also provide internet to citizens in newly liberated parts of the country where telecom services may have been destroyed.
But Musk made it clear to his Twitter followers that he was concerned about the role his terminals played in the conflict. In October, some soldiers on the frontline reported “catastrophic” interruptions in connectivity, especially as they pushed back Russian forces in the south and east of the country, the Financial Times reported.
The Pentagon has not released additional information about the contract, which was negotiated in October. In response to a request from Ukraine’s defense minister for about 8,000 terminals, Musk had asked the Pentagon for financial support. CNN reported that at the time.