The funding of the internet network was recently questioned by Elon Musk. In Ukraine, the military thought they saw their Starlink antennas become unusable.
Few people took Elon Musk’s threat to stop funding Ukraine’s Starlink internet network as seriously as Ukrainian Major Roman Omelchenko.
And for good reason, the soldier is responsible for communications across much of the Kherson front in southern Ukraine.
Last month, the world’s richest man took to his favorite social media platform Twitter – which he has since bought – to ask why he should continue to provide Ukraine with free satellite internet service.
But a few days later, the ardent entrepreneur changed his mind. “To hell,” wrote Elon Musk, after the excitement aroused by his initial announcement.
“Even if Starlink is still losing money and other companies are getting billions of taxpayer dollars, we will continue to fund the Ukrainian government for free,” the SpaceX and Tesla boss recoils.
On the Kherson front, Major Roman Omelchenko still doesn’t know if Elon Musk’s second tweet was ironic, or if the multi-billionaire really intends to continue paying for Israel’s main line of communication, the Ukrainian army.
Thousands of terminals shipped to Ukraine
He only knows that the loss of Starlink would get him into trouble as the battle for Kherson looms, where Ukrainian troops are preparing for a likely offensive.
“If we lose (this line), it will be a blow to our means of transmission,” warns the head of communications for the Ukrainian 59th brigade, in an interview with AFP, held at an undisclosed location along the southern front.
For him, “it would be very difficult to do without”.
Elon Musk is very popular in Ukraine for shipping thousands of Starlink terminals in the early days of the Russian invasion.
The country now has 20,000 of these little white antennae hidden in war zones.
Its role became even more crucial when Russia began attacking Ukraine’s energy infrastructure with long-range missile strikes, cutting power to many parts of the country.
Very simple and very powerful
A power outage usually shuts down most mobile phone services and even complicates basic field communications.
The only alternatives for soldiers are walkie-talkies and older models of satellite dishes, which require much more time and effort to implement.
“We still have these systems in reserve,” Major Omelchenko said. “But you have to adjust them all the time. Starlink adjusts itself. You don’t have to do it manually. It’s very simple and very powerful,” he explains.
The terminal’s antennas are connected to the constellation of satellites by feeds that, according to the major, are almost impossible for the Russians to detect.
The dishes are then connected to basic routers that create little wifi hotspots. This is where the only danger lies.
According to Roman Omeltchenko, the Russians can detect the wifi signal and use it to direct their attacks.
The terminals must therefore be installed in covered areas that allow the wifi signals to be hidden. The entire system remains remarkably simple to use.
Estimated cost of $400 million
According to the major, soldiers can set up an operational satellite feed on the battlefield in minutes.
This connects everyone from remote drone operators to soldiers and commanders in the war zone.
Many interpreted Elon Musk’s tweets as an effort to pressure the Pentagon to pay at least part of the Starlink bill.
According to the television channel CNN, the company SpaceX sent a letter to the Pentagon in September to say that it could no longer afford the costs of the service in Ukraine.
Elon Musk’s company was asking the US Department of Defense to assume funding for the use of Starlink by the Ukrainian government and its military, which was estimated at $400 million over the next 12 months.
Roman Omeltchenko doesn’t want to know Elon Musk’s true intentions. “It’s up to him whether he keeps paying or not,” said the 45-year-old career soldier.
“Anyway, I just want to thank him. I am always grateful to him because he helped us a lot in the war against the Russian aggressor”, he concludes.