Governance & Risk Management , Risk Assessments

Pentagon to Pay Starlink for Ukraine's Satellite Broadband

Private Sector Services Remain Essential for Ukraine's Defense as War Continues
Pentagon to Pay Starlink for Ukraine's Satellite Broadband
A Starlink terminal in action in Ukraine in a photo dated April 19, 2022 (Image: Ministry of Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine)

The U.S. Department of Defense says it will foot the tab for Starlink satellite broadband access on behalf of Ukraine, a decision underlining Kyiv's dependence on technology companies and the risks that come with relying on the private sector during wartime.

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Starlink is a mega-constellation of 3,500 satellites in low Earth orbit, operated by California-based aerospace firm SpaceX, which can deliver broadband internet to more than 50 countries.

Since Russia launched an all-out invasion of its European neighbor in February 2022, Ukraine's government and military have relied on Starlink to stay connected. The satellite system's bandwidth underpins critical military communications, including the military's use of drones to identify Russian targets and guide artillery strikes.

The Pentagon announced the new contract with SpaceX on Thursday.

Multiple private companies have stepped forward to help Ukraine. Microsoft and Amazon Web Services are enabling the government to move its infrastructure to the cloud. Multiple cybersecurity firms - including Avast, BitDefender, CrowdStrike, Eset and SentinelOne - have also been assisting the country.

Kyiv's private sector allies have been crucial to its success - an advantage that Moscow is unable to match. Ukraine has also thrust companies into unaccustomed geopolitical roles and raised questions about sustainability, particularly if Ukraine has difficulty making payments (see: Ukraine's Cyber Defense Success: Top Takeaways).

SpaceX in particular has been willing to publicly suggest that its support of Ukraine is finite. Although CEO Elon Musk announced with fanfare a shipment of Starlink terminals to Ukraine in the weeks after Russia's February 2022 invasion, the mercurial chief executive within months was fretting over the cost. In October, Musk, who paid $44 billion to own Twitter, said supplying bandwidth to Ukraine added up to $20 million monthly and that SpaceX couldn't sustain the cost indefinitely. He later rescinded those comments and pledged to keep providing the service for free.

In this case, the answer to a corporation nervous about costs appears to be a Pentagon backstop, although officials declined to specify the size or duration of the contract. But even with the U.S. military footing the bill, tensions may persist. Musk tweeted in September that Starlink was meant to be used for peaceful purposes only. As the terms of service state: "Starlink is not designed or intended for use with or in offensive or defensive weaponry or other comparable end-uses."

In February, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell repeated that Starlink was not meant to be used for military purposes and suggested that the company had taken steps to curtail such use. In response, an adviser to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted that people needed to choose sides: They were either with Ukraine or with Russia.

Musk's predilection for opining widely may have contributed to tension. Six months into Ukraine's fight to repel Russian invaders, he tweeted a "peace plan" mirroring Russian talking points, including that Russia should retain Crimea, annexed regions in eastern Ukraine should become part of Russia - "if that is the will of the people" - and that Ukraine "remains neutral."

Some governments, as well as private backers, have previously paid for Starlink terminals on behalf of Ukraine. In April 2022, the U.S. Agency for International Development reported that it had purchased 1,300 satellite dishes, and SpaceX donated 3,600 more, Politico reported. The Polish government has also purchased terminals for Ukraine.

Crucial for Military, Government, Civilians

Starlink began assisting Ukraine after Mykhailo Fedorov, the country's deputy prime minister, who doubles as its digital minister, tweeted to Musk on Feb. 26, 2022, two days after Russia launched its offensive, asking for help. Within days, SpaceX delivered Starlink terminals to Ukraine and the service was live.

Maintaining internet connectivity during the war has proved to be crucial for enabling Ukraine's government and military to continue functioning, as well as for allowing civilians to communicate.

"Highly resilient and able to withstand electronic jamming attacks more adeptly than previously anticipated, Starlink's shoring up of Ukraine's internet infrastructure has been the lynchpin of basic battlefield communications, from weapons supply arrivals to its more controversial use in drone warfare," Melanie Garson, acting director of geopolitics at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, wrote in a recent essay for the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington.

Russia focused heavily on disrupting internet access inside Ukraine, targeting power plants, radio broadcast towers and thousands of miles of fiber optic lines, and it infected thousands of Viasat consumer broadband modems with AcidRain wiper malware. The malware executed one hour before Russia's all-out invasion began, leaving the terminals inoperable and unrepairable.

About the Author

Mathew J. Schwartz

Mathew J. Schwartz

Executive Editor, DataBreachToday & Europe, ISMG

Schwartz is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience in magazines, newspapers and electronic media. He has covered the information security and privacy sector throughout his career. Before joining Information Security Media Group in 2014, where he now serves as the executive editor, DataBreachToday and for European news coverage, Schwartz was the information security beat reporter for InformationWeek and a frequent contributor to DarkReading, among other publications. He lives in Scotland.

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