In December 2022, SpaceX unveiled Starshield, a proposed application for the internet-providing Starlink satellite constellation. Now the Pentagon has awarded SpaceX a one-year contract for Starshield that could be worth up to $70 million.
The contract allows for “end-to-end service” that includes Starlink terminals, access to the Starlink constellation’s communications capabilities, ancillary equipment, and network management. The contract will provide services for fifty service partners across all branches of the military. SpaceX is expected to receive the first payment of $15 million by October 1.
SpaceX began providing Starlink-based service to Ukraine’s defense forces near the beginning of the Russian invasion and bolstered the Starlink satellites’ ability to resist jamming. The Pentagon previously praised Starlink’s increased cybersecurity — which is, of course, not cheap when attempting to counter serious attackers like the Russian military. U.S. authorities also warned that SpaceX, an aerospace contractor that routinely launches satellites for the military, is likely to be a prime target for espionage. Elon Musk had complained about burning through cash to keep Starlink functional in Ukraine while negotiating with the Pentagon to cover the expenses.
However, SpaceX and Elon Musk recently drew a considerable amount of criticism for refusing to activate Starlink in the Crimea region to support a Ukrainian counteroffensive against the Russian navy. Ukraine says the refusal cost lives by denying it an important avenue of communications for its military forces.
The Department of Defense may be equally interested in the redundancy that comes with having thousands of Starlink satellites in orbit — especially ones that it did not have to pay SpaceX to launch. SpaceX owns Starlink and the Department of Defense only needs to pay for access to a constellation that cannot easily be disabled by jamming or hacking a few satellites.
According to Elon Musk, Starlink is meant for civilian applications and Starshield is a variant meant for “national security” interests. He says Starshield will primarily be managed by the U.S. Space Force.
SpaceX is competing with other satellite Internet companies for up to $900 million in contracts. Future competitors may include Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which is currently facing an investor lawsuit over allegations that Jeff Bezos’ feud with Elon Musk leaked over into a refusal to consider launching Project Kuiper satellites on SpaceX’s rockets. ViaSat naturally has an Internet satellite constellation. However, its satellites are in a geosynchronous orbit that is far more distance than Starlink’s low-earth orbit, which hurts their signals’ response time. OneWeb is a Europe-based company.
The Pentagon previously found Starlink’s enhanced cybersecurity attractive. Now it has awarded an up-to-$70 million contract to SpaceX for access to Starlink to take advantage of the Starshield derivative.