By TARA COPP and LOLITA C. BALDOR, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Defense Department has received a request from SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk to take over funding for their satellite network that provided crucial battlefield communications for Ukrainian military forces during the war. with Russia, a US official said.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue that has not yet been made public, said the issue has been discussed in meetings and top leaders are weighing the issue. There have been no decisions.
A Pentagon spokesman said the Pentagon has been “in contact with SpaceX” regarding the Starlink system, but declined to answer whether a letter was received or provide details about the communication and whether it involved the payment issue. Sabrina Singh also did not say to whom any letter was sent or when 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. Earlier Friday, Musk tweeted that he was costing SpaceX $20 million a month to meet Ukraine’s communications needs.
In addition to terminals, he tweeted that the company has to create, launch, maintain and replenish satellites and ground stations.
CNN was the first to report on Musk’s request.
The vital role of the Starlink satellite internet in the defense of Ukraine cannot be underestimated. For example, it has helped front-line reconnaissance drone operators target artillery strikes against key Russian assets. A senior military official made it clear Friday that the United States believes the system has proven exceptionally effective on the battlefield. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to provide a US assessment of the Ukrainian battlefield.
Responding to multiple questions during a briefing, Singh said the Pentagon was working with the Ukrainian Defense Ministry. “We know there is this demand and the (satellite communications) capacity that is needed and we want to be able to ensure that there is stable communication for the Ukrainian forces and for Ukraine.”
The request by the world’s richest man for the Pentagon to 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 addressed the friction, suggesting it could affect his decision to end his company’s largesse in funding the systems.
In a Twitter exchange last week, Musk argued that in order to achieve peace, Russia should be allowed to keep the Crimean peninsula, which it seized in 2014. He also said Ukraine should adopt a neutral status and leave Russia. his attempt to join NATO.
Musk also launched a Twitter poll asking whether “the will of the people” should decide whether the seized regions remain part of Ukraine or become part of Russia.
In a sarcastic response, Zelenskyy posted a poll of his own on Twitter asking “which Elon Musk do you like best?”: “One who supports Ukraine” or “One who supports Russia.” Musk replied to Zelenskyy that “I am still very supportive of Ukraine, but I am convinced that the massive escalation of the war will cause great harm to Ukraine and possibly to the world.”
Andrij Melnyk, Ukraine’s outgoing ambassador to Germany, responded to Musk’s original tweet with an obscenity.
It is unclear how much of the cost of deploying Starlink satellite uplinks in Ukraine has been covered by US funds. In April, the US Agency for International Development said it had delivered 5,000 handsets. The Pentagon had no answer to that question.
Musk’s commitment to spend $44 billion to buy Twitter “has to take into account his decision that he can no longer afford to do this for free,” said retired Army Maj. Gen. John Ferrari, a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. . .
Musk’s request that the Pentagon start footing the bill comes as the Space Force and Pentagon have been discussing how commercial vendors will play a role in national security, and Musk’s threat to pull out highlights the risk of leaning too far. in business capabilities. Ferrari said.
“Commercial vendors can always change their minds, unless the Defense Production Act is invoked,” Ferrari said, referring to the executive order that requires commercial industry to provide a necessary service to meet emergency needs. The reliance on Starlink to provide communications to Ukraine also serves as a reminder that the Pentagon needs to expand this service beyond SpaceX, he said.
“The government needs a lot of providers for key capabilities, of course, that often means more money, but it’s an insurance policy and insurance costs money,” Ferrari said.
In March, US Army Space Command Commander Gen. James Dickinson said that having vendors provide needed capabilities, such as Maxar satellite imagery of stalled Russian convoys, has become essential, because it frees up satellite assets. limited military to focus on other things.
In his tweets, Musk also raised a question that several vendors and the Pentagon are considering as space becomes a more critical part of wartime operations: is a commercial vendor helping the US and is it a target, eh? Does the US owe you protection?
“We’ve also had to defend against cyberattacks and jamming, which are getting harder and harder,” Musk tweeted.
Associated Press writer Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.
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