Elon Musk's immediate response to equip Ukraine with a constellation of Starlink satellites within hours of Russia's invasion Feb. 24, offers insight into the SpaceX CEO's rapid business dealings.
It also explains how, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy puts it, Ukraine keeps defying expectations in its defense against Russian President Vladimir Putin's forces.
The day after the invasion by 140,000 Russian troops began into Ukraine, Musk called a meeting of SpaceX executives and said, "'I want to get Starlink up over Ukraine,'" says Brig. Gen. Steve Butow, director of the space portfolio at the Defense Innovation Unit, the Pentagon's outpost in Silicon Valley, Politico reports. Shortly thereafter, 50 SpaceX Starlinks were operational.
The subsequent 11,000 Starlink stations flying as low as 130 miles over Ukraine's skies have given it the ability to use drones to drop bombs on Russian artillery. It also enables the post-Soviet state's military to communicate via encrypted messages, whose code is regularly changed, and for its citizens to speak to one another.
And through this communications network of table-sized satellites, Zelenskyy has been able to deliver nightly video addresses and messages via Twitter and other major social media platforms to Ukrainians. It is also what Zelenskyy uses for Zoom calls with President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron, and other world leaders.
"We've got more than 11,000 Starlink stations, and they help us in our everyday fight on all the fronts," says Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine's vice prime minister. "We're ready, even if there is no light, no fixed Internet, through generators using Starlink, to renew any connection to Ukraine."
What is also critical about this network of Starlink satellites is that while Russia can destroy them by bombing them, to take out the entire communications network, it would have to pinpoint and bomb all 11,000 Starlinks at once.
"The strategic impact is, it totally destroyed Putin's information campaign," Butow says. "He never, to this day, has been able to silence Zelenskyy.
"Thank you, Elon Musk," says Oleksiy, a frontline soldier in Ukraine who declined to give his last name for security reasons. He made his comment soon after the Biden administration said it would be sending long-range rockets to the Ukrainian army.
More recently, NATO member countries have unofficially agreed to no longer supply tanks to Ukraine, according to an avia.pro report.
Even before the first bombs dropped on Ukraine, Zelenskyy's government realized Internet access for its military and citizens would be critical for the war to come.
"Soldiers needed a sure-fire way of staying in touch during the haze of war, and raw footage of Russian attacks, often uploaded by Ukrainians themselves via social media, has brought the conflict directly to people's smartphones worldwide," Politico reports.
So, Zelenskyy almost automatically was on the same page as Musk with respect to understanding the importance of a satellite system. Two days after the invasion, Fedorov tweeted directly to Musk urging him to get the Starlink equipment. Two days after that, Feb. 28, the first SpaceX shipment arrived.
SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told the California Institute of Technology on March 7: "They tweeted at Elon, and so, we turned it on. That was our permission. That was the letter from the minister. It was a tweet."
Todd E. Humphreys, a professor at the University of Texas who has consulted with the U.S. military and SpaceX, says Starlink's encryption system — whose code is repeatedly rewritten —is more robust than anyone had expected. "It's a crystal-clear example that secure backup communications is going to be the lifetime of any modern military engagement," Humphreys says. "The nimbleness with which Starlink was set up in Ukraine was just astounding.
As to what interest Musk has in aiding Ukraine in its war with Russia and what entities are funding the Starlinks, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) said in early April it augmented SpaceX's initial donation of 3,600 satellite stations with 1,300 satellite dishes. Shortly after, the U.S. agency removed this information, although Politico says it confirmed the delivery of the shipment through an Eastern European nation.
SpaceX has said in public statements that its satellite system, estimated to cost $15 million, has come entirely from private sources. SpaceX has also pledged to pay for all Internet access to the Starlinks.
Some soldiers have been able to obtain and fund satellite dishes of their own through crowdfunding. They also say that as soon as they hear bombing in the distance or air raid sirens, their collapsible satellite dishes are among the essential items they grab and gently shove into a duffel bag before going on the run.
Alisa Kovalenko, who is fighting for Ukraine in the 92nd Separate Mechanized Brigade near the Russian border and who is also filming a documentary of the war, says: "If there is bombing and you need to pack up fast and run, it still takes time to grab everything for the Starlink. You have to be careful. It's not just a pile of clothes which you can throw in your car."
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