WASHINGTON — The U.S. Defense Department has gotten a request from SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk to take over funding for his satellite network that has provided crucial battlefield communications for Ukrainian military forces during the war with Russia, a U.S. official said.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter not yet made public, said the issue has been discussed in meetings and senior leaders are weighing the matter. There have been no decisions.
A Pentagon spokesperson said the Pentagon has been “in touch with SpaceX” regarding the Starlink system, but declined to answer whether a letter was received or provide any details about the communication and whether it involved the pay issue. Sabrina Singh also would not say to whom any letter may have been sent or when the communications with Musk began.
Musk’s Starlink system of more than 2,200 low-orbiting satellites has provided broadband internet to more than 150,000 Ukrainian ground stations. Early Friday, Musk tweeted that it was costing SpaceX $20 million a month to support Ukraine’s communications needs.
In addition to the terminals, he tweeted that the company has to create, launch, maintain and replenish satellites and ground stations.
CNN was the first to report the Musk request.
The Starlink satellite internet’s vital role in Ukraine’s defense cannot be overstated. It has, for example, assisted front-line reconnaissance drone operators in targeting artillery strikes on key Russian assets. A senior military official on Friday made it clear that the U.S. believes the system has proven exceptionally effective on the battlefield. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to provide U.S. assessment of the Ukraine battlefield.
In response to multiple questions during a briefing, Singh said the Pentagon was working with the Ukrainian Defense Ministry. “We know that there is this demand and [satellite communications] capability that is needed and we want to be able to ensure that there are stable communication for the Ukrainian forces and for Ukraine.”
The request from the world’s richest man to have the Pentagon take over the hundreds of millions of dollars he says the system is costing comes on the heels of a Twitter war between Musk and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. And in tweets overnight Musk referred to the friction, suggesting it may affect his decision to end his company’s largesse in funding the systems.
In a Twitter exchange last week, Musk argued that to reach peace Russia should be allowed to keep the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized in 2014. He also said Ukraine should adopt a neutral status, dropping a bid to join NATO.
Musk also started a Twitter poll asking whether “the will of the people” should decide if seized regions remain part of Ukraine or become part of Russia.
In a sarcastic response, Zelenskyy posted a Twitter poll of his own asking “which Elon Musk do you like more?”: “One who supports Ukraine” or “One who supports Russia.” Musk replied to Zelenskyy that “I still very much support Ukraine, but am convinced that massive escalation of the war will cause great harm to Ukraine and possibly the world.”
Andrij Melnyk, the outgoing Ukrainian ambassador to Germany, responded to Musk’s original tweet with an obscenity.
It’s not clear how much of the cost of deploying Starlink satellite uplinks in Ukraine has been covered by U.S. funding. In April, the U.S. Agency for International Development said it had delivered 5,000 of the terminals. The Pentagon had no response to that question.
Musk’s request that the Pentagon begin to pick up the tab comes as the Space Force and Pentagon have been looking at how commercial vendors will play a role in national security.
In March, commander of U.S. Space Command Army Gen. James Dickinson said that having many vendors providing needed capabilities, such as Maxar’s satellite imagery of stalled Russian convoys, has become essential, because it frees up limited military satellite assets to focus on other things.
In his tweets, Musk also raised a question that various vendors and the Pentagon are considering as space becomes a more critical part of wartime operations: If a commercial vendor is assisting the U.S. and is targeted, does the U.S. owe it protection?
“We’ve also had to defend against cyberattacks & jamming, which are getting harder,” Musk tweeted.
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.