Musk seeks U.S. funds for Ukraine satellite network, officials say
The Defense Department has gotten a request from SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk to take over funding for his satellite network that has provided crucial battlefield communications for Ukrainian military forces during the war with Russia, U.S. officials said Friday.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter not yet made public, said that the issue has been discussed in meetings and that senior leaders are weighing the matter. There have been no decisions.
A Pentagon spokesperson said the department has been “in touch with SpaceX” regarding the Starlink system but declined to answer whether a letter was received or provide any details about the communication and whether it involved the pay issue. Sabrina Singh also would not say to whom any letter may have been sent or when the communications with Musk began.
Musk’s Starlink system of more than 2,200 low-orbiting satellites has provided broadband internet to more than 150,000 Ukrainian ground stations. Early Friday, Musk tweeted that it was costing SpaceX $20 million a month.
In addition to the terminals, he tweeted that the company has to create, launch, maintain and replenish satellites and ground stations.
CNN was the first to report the Musk request.
Rights groups say Moscow’s practice of transporting captured Ukrainian civilians to Russia is illegal under international law. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, have vanished from Russian-occupied areas.
The Starlink satellite internet’s vital role in Ukraine’s defense cannot be overstated. It has, for example, assisted front-line reconnaissance drone operators in targeting artillery strikes on key Russian assets. A senior military official on Friday made it clear that the U.S. believes the system has proved exceptionally effective on the battlefield.
In a tweet Friday, Ukrainian presidential advisor Mikhail Podolyak said Ukraine will find a solution to keep Starlink working.
“Let’s be honest. Like it or not, @elonmusk helped us survive the most critical moments of war. Business has the right to its own strategies,” he tweeted.
“We expect that the company will provide stable connection till the end of negotiations.”
In response to multiple questions during a briefing, Singh said the Pentagon was working with the Ukrainian Defense Ministry. “We know that there is this demand, and [satellite communications] capability ... is needed, and we want to be able to ensure that there are stable communications for the Ukrainian forces and for Ukraine.”
The request from the world’s richest man comes on the heels of a Twitter war between Musk and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
And in tweets overnight Musk referred to the friction, suggesting it may affect his decision to end his company’s largesse in funding the systems.
In a Twitter exchange last week, Musk argued that to reach peace Russia should be allowed to keep the Crimean peninsula, which it seized illegally in 2014. He also said Ukraine should adopt a neutral status, dropping a bid to join NATO.
Musk also started a Twitter poll asking whether “the will of the people” should decide if seized regions remain part of Ukraine or become part of Russia.
Elon Musk fulfilled a promise to get a shipment of Starlink satellite dishes into Ukraine, helping the country maintain internet connectivity in the face of Russian onslaught
In a sarcastic response, Zelensky posted a Twitter poll of his own asking “which Elon Musk do you like more?”: “One who supports Ukraine” or “One who supports Russia.”
Musk replied to Zelensky that “I still very much support Ukraine, but am convinced that massive escalation of the war will cause great harm to Ukraine and possibly the world.”
Andrij Melnyk, the outgoing Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, responded to Musk’s original tweet with an obscenity.
It’s not clear how much of the cost of deploying Starlink satellite uplinks in Ukraine has been covered by U.S. funding. In April, the U.S. Agency for International Development said it had delivered 5,000 of the terminals. The Pentagon had no response to that question.
Musk’s commitment to spend $44 billion to purchase Twitter “has to factor into his decision that he can no longer afford to do this for free,” said retired Army Maj. Gen. John Ferrari, a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Musk’s request that the Pentagon begin to pick up the tab comes as the U.S. Space Force has been looking at how commercial vendors will play a role in national security. Musk’s threat to withdraw highlights the risk of leaning too much on commercial capabilities, Ferrari said.
“Commercial vendors always get to change their mind,” Ferrari said, adding that the reliance on Starlink to provide communications for Ukraine also serves as a reminder that the Pentagon has to expand this service beyond SpaceX, he said.
“The government needs many vendors for key capabilities; of course that often means more money, but it is an insurance policy and insurance costs money,” Ferrari said.
In March, commander of U.S. Space Command Army Gen. James Dickinson said that having vendors provide needed capabilities, such as Maxar’s satellite imagery of stalled Russian convoys, has become essential, because it frees up limited military satellite assets to focus on other things.
In his tweets, Musk also raised a question that various vendors and the Pentagon are considering as space becomes a more critical part of wartime operations: If a commercial vendor is assisting the U.S. and is targeted, does the U.S. owe it protection?
“We’ve also had to defend against cyberattacks & jamming, which are getting harder,” Musk tweeted.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for the L.A. Times biggest news, features and recommendations in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.