(Bloomberg) -- Pentagon officials working with Elon Musk’s SpaceX have blunted the Russian military’s unauthorized use of Starlink internet terminals on the battlefield in its war with Ukraine, according to the Defense Department’s space policy chief.

The US has been “heavily involved in working with the government of Ukraine and SpaceX to counter Russian illicit use of Starlink terminals,” John Plumb, the outgoing assistant secretary for space policy, said in an interview.

“At this time we have successfully countered Russian use, but I am certain Russia will continue to try and find ways to exploit Starlink and other commercial communications systems,” he told Bloomberg News. Although “it will continue to be a problem, I think we’ve wrapped our heads around it and found good solutions with both Starlink and Ukraine.”


Plumb declined to elaborate on what tactics, techniques or procedures are being used to stem Russia’s use of the highly portable communications terminals that connect to SpaceX’s fleet of low-orbiting satellites. Ukrainian government officials had no immediate comment.

Starlink terminals continue to be advertised for sale in Russia on platforms such as e-commerce site Ozon. Their sellers say they function through subscriptions taken out in the name of residents of European countries where the technology is licensed, and they say that connections work — not within Russia’s heartlands but near border regions such as Ukraine’s occupied territories.

This week, however, users complained of unprecedented connectivity issues. On the messaging app Telegram one of the sellers recommended transferring onto a more expensive global service plan. Bloomberg hasn’t been able to independently verify whether those workarounds restore connectivity for illicit Starlink use in Russia.

‘Very Reliable’

Plumb made clear that he’s had successful dealings with SpaceX despite the often combative and mercurial comments by billionaire Musk and his postings on X, his social media platform.

“To me, they’re a very reliable partner and they are also ‘innovating at speed,’ providing services that are useful to the Defense Department,” he said. SpaceX also provides rockets to launch national security satellites in competition with United Launch Alliance, which is a joint venture of top defense contractors Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co.

In a letter released Monday, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren urged the Pentagon to rein in the use of Starlink in Russia and other unauthorized regions, saying it poses a “serious national security threat” to the US and its allies. 

Warren’s letter follows a March investigation by Bloomberg News, which revealed the extent to which Musk’s satellites are being used in countries where it lacks authorization of licensing agreements to operate, including those ruled by repressive regimes. 

Read More: Elon Musk’s Starlink Terminals Are Falling Into the Wrong Hands

By May 2022, Ukraine had received 10,000 of the Starlink terminals, the size of a pizza box, that are providing critical communications in its war with Russian invaders, according to Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation. The Pentagon subsequently awarded SpaceX a one-year, $23 million Pentagon contract that ends this month.

Asked about the status of the contract, Omar Villarreal, a spokesman for the Space Force, said it’s working to extend the contract through November. 

Plumb, who is leaving the Defense Department this month after a two-year stint as its first space policy chief, hasn’t announced his next move except to spend more time with his children. His wife is the Pentagon’s acting chief digital and artificial intelligence officer.

Musk Controversies

Plumb’s tenure saw controversy over Starlink’s use in Ukraine, starting with news reports in October 2022 that Musk intended to cut off Starlink service there if the US didn’t help fund it. He retracted that threat, and the Defense Department subsequently awarded SpaceX a contract.

Earlier: Musk Denial of Ukraine’s Starlink Request Prompts Senate Query

Further questions were raised about whether drug use by Musk would force the Defense Department to cancel his security clearance for classified contracts such as the national security launches.

Asked about such issues and their impact on relations with SpaceX, Plumb said, “We enter into contracts with the company. We take that serious, they take that serious. SpaceX hasn’t violated any terms of any contract at the Department of Defense that I’m tracking, at all.”

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On the question of whether the Pentagon is overly reliant on Space X, Plumb said that “they have services valuable to the department and we are using them,” but the Pentagon is looking for added competition through its new commercial space strategy.

“More competition will emerge over this decade,” including alternatives to Starlink’s constellation of satellites, he said. “There’s a lot of commercial solutions that SpaceX is not involved in that the DoD would benefit from.” He didn’t elaborate on possible contenders.

In the end, Pentagon officials deal with Gwynne Shotwell, the president of SpaceX, not Musk, its co-founder and chief executive officer.

In two years in office, Plumb said, “I’ve never spoken to Elon.”

--With assistance from Alberto Nardelli and Olesia Safronova.

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