Communication was interrupted after 1,300 SpaceX satellites were taken offline in Ukraine due to financial problems.



Washington
CNN

Fears that Ukraine’s troops could lose access to Elon Musk’s vital Starlink internet service deepened last week after 1,300 of the military’s satellite units were taken offline, according to two sources familiar with the outage.

Small, easy-to-use satellite dishes developed by SpaceX, Musk’s private rocket company, have been hailed as a game-changing communications source for the Ukrainian military, allowing them to fight and stay online even if cellphone and Internet networks are destroyed. In the war with Russia.

But concerns about SpaceX’s reliability have grown recently after funding disputes were revealed and front-line disruptions were reported.

CNN first reported that SpaceX sent a letter to the Pentagon in September claiming it had spent nearly $100 million to fund Starlink in Ukraine and could no longer continue to do so. The letter demanded that the Department of Defense take over more of the funding, which it estimated the Ukrainian military would spend in the tens of millions of dollars a month.

A few days after CNN’s report, Musk reversed course, claiming SpaceX had withdrawn the request.

“To hell with it” Musk he tweeted“We will continue to fund the Ukrainian government for free.”

According to a senior defense official, talks between SpaceX and the Department of Defense are continuing, despite claims that Musk has withdrawn SpaceX’s request.

“Negotiations are going on a lot. Everyone in our building knows we’re going to pay them,” a senior Pentagon official told CNN, adding that the department was eager to get written commitments because “we’re worried he’s going to change his mind.”

On Wednesday, Musk attended a ceremony for the US Space Force, which included Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley. Musk also engaged in a 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 latest break began on October 24 and was described by one whistleblower as a “big problem” for the Ukrainian military. According to this person, the terminals were cut due to lack of funding.

The crisis affected 1,300 terminal blocks that Ukraine bought from a British company in March and used for military operations.

SpaceX was charging the Ukrainian military $2,500 per month to keep each of the 1,300 units grounded, bringing the total cost to about $20 million by September. Eventually, they couldn’t pay anymore, the person said.

Before the terminals were completely blacked out, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense asked its British counterparts in early October to pick up the $3.25 million monthly bill. A batch of terminals has also been reshuffled to minimize the impact, the source said, as concerns about service shutdowns grew.

The British official said that after discussions between the ministries, “it was agreed that there should be a higher priority military capability”. Among many other channels of support, the UK sends thousands of Ukrainian soldiers to Britain for training before returning to the front lines.

“We are supporting a number of terminals that have direct tactical support for the Ukrainian military in repelling the Russian invasion,” a British official told CNN. “We prioritize all new requests in terms of the impact they will have on supporting Ukraine to defend its people against Putin’s deplorable occupation.”

A senior Ukrainian official confirmed the cut, calling the Starlink units “very important” to Ukraine’s fight against Russia.

SpaceX’s September letter to the Pentagon states that there are about 20,000 Starlink terminals in Ukraine. At the time, by SpaceX’s own admission, most of them were financed in whole or in part by outsiders, including the governments of the United States, Poland, and the United Kingdom. The letter alleged that these sources also paid about 30% of the monthly connection fee.

The terminals, which contain small satellite antennas, connect to SpaceX’s constellation of earth-orbiting satellites and not only keep troops and civilians online, but are used with deadly effect, proving critical to Ukraine’s use of drones and artillery targets.

It is not clear exactly how many terminals the Ukrainian military operates, but the 1,300 terminals that were recently closed make up a significant portion. In July, the country’s commander-in-chief directly asked Musk for more in a letter seen by CNN, saying about 4,000 troops had been deployed by the military.

A woman rides a bicycle past a building damaged during Russia's attack on Ukraine on November 3, 2022, in Kupyansk, Kharkiv Oblast.

Musk said earlier this month that of the more than 25,000 terminals currently in Ukraine, less than 11,000 pay for the service, which can run up to $4,500 a month.

A Pentagon spokesman on Monday declined to comment on potential contracts or agreements, but said negotiations were ongoing.

“We continue to discuss Ukraine’s satellite communications needs with Ukraine and SpaceX and other companies,” Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told reporters.

Whether greater cooperation with SpaceX would give the US government stronger control over the Starlink signal in Ukraine remains unanswered. Currently, SpaceX controls the locations where Ukrainian Starlink terminals can be used and has been reported earlier by Ukrainian units close to the front as it advances to liberate Russian controlled areas.

As a result, Musk’s control of the signal 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.





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