Ukrainian forces were dealt a major blow after 1,300 of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite units went offline over a funding issue. Over the past year, the SpaceX CEO has handed Kyiv over 10,000 dish antennas to its new satellite constellation service, which aims to bring internet access everywhere. These satellites have been deployed in settings from governmental buildings, hospitals and schools — to helping to control drones used to combat the invading Russian forces. However, Ukraine now fears that its troops may soon lose access to the satellite service after 1,300 units went offline, according to reports.
These satellites, which have critical for Ukrainian communication, may no longer be seen as reliable, after outages were reported on the frontlines amid discussions over funding.
In September, SpaceX sent a letter to the US Pentagon, claiming that the space company had spent nearly $100million (£87.4million) funding Starlink in Ukraine.
They warned that they could no longer support Ukraine for free, and requested tens of millions of dollars a month from the US government to fund Ukraine’s military.
However, later in October, the world’s richest man changed his stance as he tweeted: “The hell with it, Even though Starlink is still losing money & other companies are getting billions of taxpayer $, we’ll just keep funding Ukraine govt for free.”
However, despite Mr Musk’s claim that he has withdrawn the request, a senior defence official told CNN that negotiations between SpaceX and the US Defense Department still continue.
The official said: “Negotiations are very much underway. Everyone in our building knows we’re going to pay them”. The US is looking to have the commitments down in writing over fears that Mr Musk would “change his mind”.
A source added that Starlink satellite units had begun facing outages on October 24. Describing it a “huge problem” for the military, they said that the terminals had been disconnected due to a lack of funding.
The outage took down a block of 1,300 units that Ukraine had purchased from a British firm in March, and was used for combat-related operations.
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They added that SpaceX was charging Ukraine’s military $2,500 (£2180) a month to keep units connected, with the total expenses rising to nearly $20million by September, which Kyiv could no longer afford to pay.
Before the terminals went offline, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence issued a request to the UK Government last month to help pick up a $3.25million (£2.8million) monthly bill.
They also began rotating out the batch of terminals in an attempt to minimise the impact of the service being cut off.
A British official said that the UK had “higher priority military capabilities” when it came to supporting Ukraine, adding: “We support a number of terminals that have a direct tactical utility for Ukraine’s military in repelling Russia’s invasion.
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“We consider and prioritize all new requests in terms of the impact contributions would have in supporting Ukraine to defend its people against Putin’s deplorable invasion.”
The internet programme Starlink consists of around 3,000 small satellites in low Earth orbit and ground terminals. The company has donated around 25,000 ground terminals to Ukraine and internet access has helped the ex-Soviet state reboot key infrastructures during the war with Russia.
This conflict over pay comes after the SpaceX CEO caused controversy on Twitter earlier this month when he suggested his own “peace” plan to solve the Russian and Ukrainian war.
The billionaire wrote a series of tweets in which he asked his Twitter followers to vote in a poll on his idea that Ukraine regions currently annexed by Russia have an election run by the United Nations to see which country the regions should belong to.
He also suggested that Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, should be formally given to Russia.