SpaceX’s provision of Starlink terminals and web connectivity to Ukraine should be applauded, but the erratic nature of some members of the company’s management is concerning.
Starlink was “never, never meant to be weaponised,” Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and chief operating officer, said during the Commercial Space Transportation conference in Washington DC on 8th February. “Ukrainians have leveraged it in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement,” Ms. Shotwell continued.
SpaceX famously provided its Starlink Satellite Communications (SATCOM) terminals to Ukraine following Russia’s second invasion of the country on 24th February. Four days later SpaceX began shipping terminals to Ukraine. Lightweight and highly portable the terminals can access SpaceX’s Starlink constellation using Ku-band twelve gigahertz/GHz to 18GHz and 26GHz to 40GHz frequencies. Wideband internet access is provided with data rates of between 20 megabits-per-second/mbps and 220mbps. The terminals access Starlink low earth orbit satellites within line-of-sight range above the Ukraine theatre of operations.
The constellation comprises over 3,200 spacecraft covering most of Europe, parts of the North African coast and the United States. Starlink has made an invaluable contribution to Ukrainian success in the ongoing war. The terminals have enabled Ukraine to outflank Russian attempts to sabotage Ukrainian internet access and have been used to ensure the connectivity of Ukraine’s critical national infrastructure. For example, Newsweek reported that the terminals have helped ensure connectivity between Ukraine’s hospitals and health facilities. Militarily, Starlink has been indispensable for ensuring wideband internet connectivity for Ukrainian forces. It has helped connect uninhabited aerial vehicles with their pilots and to share the data they collect. The contribution has been so valuable that Russian cyberwarriors have tried to hack the terminals. This was first detailed by SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk in March 2022. It was swiftly remedied with a software fix. Russian hacking has continued sporadically since.
Footing the Bill
Ms. Shotwell’s outburst is not the first time SpaceX has courted controversy regarding Starlink provision to Ukraine. CNN reported in October that it had seen a letter sent by SpaceX to the US Department of Defence (US DOD) asking the latter to pay for Ukraine’s Starlink use. SpaceX claimed it could no longer afford to fund this. The report stated that the company has paid 70 percent of all SATCOM services provided to date in Ukraine. This includes subscription rates of $4,500 per-month per-terminal. The terminals themselves sent to Ukraine cost either $1,500 or $2,500. Mr. Musk claimed that the costs incurred by SpaceX providing Starlink terminals and coverage to Ukraine would reach $100 million by the end of 2022. He later said on social media that “SpaceX is not asking to recoup past expenses, but also cannot fund the existing system indefinitely (and) send several thousand more terminals that have data usage up to 100 (times) greater than typical households.” Eyebrows were raised regarding Mr. Musk’s claims, particularly as SpaceX’s own figures quoted by CNN said that circa 85 percent of the first 20,000 terminals sent to Ukraine were paid for by the US, Poland and others. These actors also paid for around 30 percent of the bandwidth costs.
Mr. Musk articulated his own ‘peace plan’ for the war on 3rd October 2022. This included requirements for Ukraine to remain neutral. Russia would also retain the southern Ukrainian territory of Crimea it occupied in 2014. Both these conditions would be unacceptable to Kyiv.
This begs the question as to whether Mr. Musk metaphorically threw his toys out of his cot by threatening Starlink provision after his proposals were rejected? Ultimately, Mr. Musk backtracked on 15th October saying on social media: “(T)he hell with it … even though Starlink is still losing money and other companies are getting billions of taxpayers (dollars) we’ll just keep funding (the Ukrainian government) for free.” The row appeared to have died down until Ms. Shotwell’s interventions this February.
Beyond Ukraine, SpaceX is keen to fulfil US DOD SATCOM requirements. The company has already carved a valuable niche launching satellites for the Pentagon. It has developed a militarised version of Starlink called Starshield. The spacenews.com website reported that this could provide secure worldwide communications to the DOD. These links would presumably be carried over existing and future satellites in the Starlink constellation, albeit with more secure waveforms. The DOD will desperately need SATCOM bandwidth in the future. Its Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) architecture will deepen the intra- and inter-connection of all sensors, weapons, personnel, platforms and bases at strategic, operational and tactical levels. This will be done to improve the quality and pace of decision-making at all levels of war.
The recent remarks by SpaceX’s senior leadership are concerning. They arguably risk eroding the vital international support Ukraine is receiving as it resists Russian aggression. Secondly, they seem to show naivety. Mr. Musk cannot have seriously expected that Starlink would not be used for military purposes? After all, these communications give Ukrainian forces a serious tactical advantage over their Russian adversary.
Beyond Ukraine, what do his comments and those of Ms. Shotwell say about the company’s reliability? Would Mr. Musk make similar threats to the DOD if it was using his networks in the future in a way he did not like? To threaten to pull the plug during wartime could be a best irresponsible and at worse may cost lives. The SATCOM services provided by SpaceX have shown themselves to be transformational in Ukraine. They could have a similar effect on US and allied communications in the future. However, this depends on the company being a responsible and reliable actor.
by Dr. Thomas Withington