Defense & National Security — Musk stirs doubt over future of Starlink in Ukraine 

The Biden administration is in talks with SpaceX over who will foot the bill for the critical internet service in Ukraine provided by the company’s Starlink after the Elon Musk-owned firm said the system’s high cost is too much for it to handle.  

We’ll share what we know about those communications and the theories for what prompted it, plus expanded benefits for survivors of LGBT veterans and new worries over Russia. 

This is Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. For The Hill, I’m Ellen Mitchell. A friend forward this newsletter to you? Subscribe here.

Pentagon in talks over funding Starlink in Ukraine

The Pentagon on Friday confirmed that the Biden administration was in talks with SpaceX over who will foot the bill for the critical internet service in Ukraine provided by the company’s Starlink. 

The director of government sales for SpaceX, owned by CEO Elon Musk, reportedly sent a letter to the Pentagon last month stating it could no longer fund Starlink in Ukraine as it is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to keep it running for the next year, according to documents CNN said it obtained.   

“I can confirm that the [Defense Department] has been in communication with SpaceX regarding Starlink,” Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters Friday. “I’m not going to get into further details of this discussion just now. … But we’re working with our partners and allies in trying to figure out what’s best.”   

Scant details: Pressed repeatedly as to when the Pentagon first began communications with SpaceX, who was involved and the nature of the talks, Singh would not offer details. 

Keeping options open: She added that officials “understand the fragility” of the Ukrainian communications system and are “assessing our options and trying to do what we can to help keep these … capabilities to ensure that these communications remain for the Ukrainian forces.”  

“There are certainly other [satellite communication] capabilities that exist out there,” Singh said, when asked if there are any other commercially available alternatives to Starlink. “There’s not just SpaceX, there are other entities that we can certainly partner with when it comes to providing Ukraine with what they need on the battlefield.” 

A critical service: Starlink services in Ukraine are critical to the country in its ongoing war with Russia, and losing such a communications system is likely to have a detrimental effect on its armed forces. The Ukrainian military has credited the reliable, lightweight and mobile internet terminals as crucial to military and civilian communication.   

Musk’s claims: Musk earlier on Friday seemed to confirm that SpaceX had reached out to the Pentagon regarding Starlink costs when he tweeted that his company must “create, launch, maintain & replenish satellites & ground stations & pay telcos for access to Internet via gateways,” as well as “defend against cyberattacks & jamming, which are getting harder.” He claimed that was costing the company about $20 million a month. 

Controversies: SpaceX’s communications with the Pentagon come as Musk, the world’s richest man, has faced intense scrutiny over his suggestions for a negotiated settlement to end the war. He proposed that Russia keep Crimea in such a settlement, an idea that was roundly rejected by Ukrainian leaders.   

And though Musk initially received widespread acclaim for providing the Starlink service to Ukraine at the start of the war, it was revealed that most of the 20,000 terminals in the country are completely or partially funded by outside sources such as the U.S. government, the United Kingdom and Poland, CNN reported. 

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VA expands survivor benefits to same-sex couples 

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on Friday announced an initiative to expand survivor benefits to survivors of LGBT veterans, many of whom were unable to legally wed before the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015. 

Before the Supreme Court’s landmark decision, same-sex couples in at least a dozen states were unable to legally marry. 

Lingering effects: The fact continues to impact survivors of LGBT veterans, who are excluded from VA survivor benefits because their veteran spouse died before their legal union met the department’s length-of-marriage requirements. 

New rules: Under VA guidelines, a couple must be married for at least one year to qualify for survivor benefits and at least eight years to become eligible to receive a higher rate of benefits. 

  • But on Friday, the department said survivors of LGBT veterans are now able to apply for these benefits. Eligible surviving spouses who apply in the next year will receive benefits backdated to Oct. 11, 2022, the department said. 
  • “VA is closing a gap in benefits for surviving spouses of LGBTQ+ Veterans, righting a wrong that is a legacy of the discriminatory federal ban on same-sex marriages,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said Friday in a news release

A larger effort: Friday’s announcement is part of a larger effort by the VA to expand protections for LGBT veterans. 

The department last year began providing benefits to veterans discharged under the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy, which prohibited LGBT military personnel from sharing or openly acknowledging their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Read the full story here 

US’ nuclear fears at highest levels since Cold War 

At a moment when the global COVID-19 pandemic is finally loosening its grip on the public consciousness as an object of existential dread, a new fear has swept in to supplant it: nuclear annihilation.  

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February has stoked U.S. nuclear fears like no other event since the close of the Cold War, according to foreign policy scholars and public opinion curators. In poll after poll this year, a majority of Americans have said they believe Russian President Vladimir Putin may unleash nuclear weapons on Ukraine, as Putin himself has threatened.  

“The level of anxiety is something that I haven’t seen since the Cuban missile crisis,” said Peter Kuznick, a history professor and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, referring to the tense 1962 standoff between the United States and Soviet Union. “And that was short-lived. This has gone on for months now.”  

Spiking tensions: Nuclear unease surged with the Feb. 24 invasion, then spiked further when Putin put his nuclear forces on high alert days later. Tensions eased over the summer, as the Ukraine invasion faded from the headlines and Americans grew to accept the lingering war as a new normal. Fears rose again this month amid suggestions that Putin might resort to using nuclear weapons to stem mounting losses.    

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  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies will host a virtual talk on “U.S. and Lithuania’s Strategic Cooperation,” at 10 a.m. 
  • The Potomac Officers Club will hold its “8th Annual Intel Summit 2022,” at 10:30 a.m. 
  • The Heritage Foundation will discuss “Cyber Persistence: A New Paradigm for Cyberspace Strategy and Policy,” at 12 p.m. 
  • The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, will hold a discussion on Russian information warfare, at 2 p.m. 


That’s it for today! Check out The Hill’s Defense and National Security pages for the latest coverage. See you next week!