Pentagon awards SpaceX with Ukraine contract for Starlink satellite internet

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Ukrainian forces set up Starlink satellite receivers to provide connection for civilians at Independence Square after the withdrawal of the Russian army from Kherson to the eastern bank of Dnieper River, Ukraine on November 13, 2022.
Metin Atkas | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon said Thursday it has agreed to purchase Starlink satellite internet terminals from Elon Musk‘s SpaceX for use in Ukraine as Kyiv continues to fight off a full-scale Russian invasion.

“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 Pentagon said in a statement to CNBC.

The Pentagon declined to offer additional contract details, including the price, scope and timeline of the delivery.

“For operational security reasons and due to the critical nature of these systems – we do not have additional information regarding specific capabilities, contracts or partners to provide at this time,” the statement added.

Bloomberg first reported the contract on Thursday. SpaceX did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

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The first Starlink terminals in Ukraine arrived four days after Russian troops poured over the nation’s border in what became the largest air, land and sea assault in Europe since World War II.

Ukraine’s digital minister Mykhailo Fedorov, who had previously asked Musk for the capability on Twitter, posted that Starlink was “here” in Ukraine — with a photo showing more than two dozen boxes in the back of a truck.

Musk said in October that SpaceX wouldn’t be able to continue funding use of Starlink terminals in the country out of its own coffers “indefinitely,” after a report from CNN said the company had asked the Pentagon to cover the cost.

Western officials have previously hailed Musk’s decision to equip Ukraine with Starlink internet, citing the colossal and indiscriminate Russian shelling on civilian infrastructure that has left large swaths of the country without communications.

Though, in October, Musk reportedly told the Pentagon he would no longer finance the Starlink terminals in Ukraine as the country prepared to fight through the harsh winter months. The billionaire later offered a reversal.

‘Never intended to be weaponized’

Starlink is SpaceX’s global network of over 4,000 satellites that provides service to more than 50 countries. The company has grown Starlink to more than 1.5 million customers, and is weekly launching batches of additional satellites to expand the network’s capability. The U.S. has approved a plan to expand to as many as 7,500 satellites in orbit.

SpaceX has steadily expanded Starlink’s product offerings in recent years, selling services to residential, business, RV, maritime and aviation customers.

Earlier this year, SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said the company has been “really pleased to be able to provide Ukraine connectivity and help them in their fight for freedom,” but she emphasized that Starlink “was never intended to be weaponized.”

“Ukrainians have leveraged it in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement, so we have to work on that at Starlink,” Shotwell said in February.

Shotwell added that Ukraine using Starlink as a communications system “for the military is fine,” “but our intent was never to have them use it for offensive purposes.”

She specifically noted reports about Ukraine using Starlink “on drones.” Ukrainian soldiers have described using Starlink to connect drones and identify and destroy enemy targets, the Times of London reported in March 2022.

“I’m not going to go into the details; there are things that we can do to limit their ability to do that … there are things that we can do and have done,” Shotwell said.

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