Pentagon to Pay for Starlink Service in Ukraine

The U.S. Department of Defense has confirmed that it is paying for Starlink service in Ukraine. It did not provide details on any contract with SpaceX for access to Starlink’s satellite-based Internet service.

“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 Department of Defense said in a statement provided to media outlets.

Last September, SpaceX threatened to withdraw Starlink service from Ukraine on the grounds that it could not afford to continue providing it for free. Elon Musk seemed to backtrack after some public backlash and SpaceX withdrew the funding request it had made to the Pentagon.

At the time, less than half the active Starlink terminals in Ukraine were being paid for. SpaceX impressed the Pentagon by beefing up cybersecurity and anti-jamming protocols for the satellites providing Internet services to Ukraine to counter Russia’s jamming attempts. Cybersecurity that is good enough to earn compliments from the Department of Defense is not cheap.

Since then, the Department of Defense has been in talks with SpaceX to fund Starlink service. It did not confirm exactly when it started paying for service but announced plans to provide Ukraine with satellite communications terminals and services in December 2022. At the time, the Department of Defense said only that additional terminals were likely to be purchased and sent to Ukraine as part of the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative.

At about the same time, a Ukrainian government official also confirmed that Ukraine would receive 10,000 more “Starlink kits” that include the terminal due to a new deal with SpaceX.

SpaceX and Elon Musk had previously objected to Ukraine’s use of the Starlink Internet service for a counteroffensive that might push into Russian territory. SpaceX especially acted to prevent the Ukrainian military from using Starlink to control its drones.

As early as March 2023, SpaceX used geofencing to block use in Russian territory, over water, or if the receiver was moving at speeds of over 100 kilometers per hour.

In February, Gwynn Shotwell mentioned that the military using Starlink for communication was acceptable, but “our intent was never to have them use it for offensive purposes.”

Elon Musk echoed concerns that the Russia-Ukraine war could escalate into World War 3 in a response to a tweet by former astronaut Scott Kelly.

Scott Kelly is best known for having commanded the International Space Station and served nearly a year on the ISS as part of the “Year in Space” mission. Senator Mark Kelly is his twin brother and also a former astronaut.

The Russia-Ukraine war began in February 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine. The International Criminal Court has since indicted Russian President Vladimir Putin, alleging that he committed war crimes. Russia is not under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, so Putin might not stand trial for those charges. However, it may affect him in other ways, such as limiting which countries he can freely travel to.

Details on the Pentagon’s deal with SpaceX to provide Starlink service in Ukraine has been scanty. It is not clear how much the Pentagon is paying for the service, for instance. However, Musk’s complaints about having to donate Starlink access to Ukraine appear to have been addressed to his satisfaction.