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Improving Arctic Communication Infrastructure Amidst Growing Geostrategic Importance

Introduction:

The Arctic region, once a remote and frozen expanse, is now emerging as a pivotal arena for geopolitical competition and militarization. In this evolving landscape, secure satellite communications play a critical role in enabling military operations, ensuring situational awareness, and facilitating information sharing. However, the extreme environmental conditions and lack of infrastructure in the Arctic pose significant challenges to communication systems, requiring innovative solutions to address the growing demand for connectivity.In this blog article, we explore the significance of secure satellite communications in the Arctic and the measures being taken to address this imperative need.

The Growing Importance of the Arctic:

The Arctic, once a remote and icy expanse, is now at the forefront of global attention due to the effects of climate change, which have led to the melting of ice caps and the opening of new trade routes and access to valuable resources. This has sparked intense competition among nations for control over untapped reserves of oil, natural gas, and minerals, estimated to be worth over $1 trillion. As human activity in the Arctic increases, including shipping, mining, energy exploration, and tourism, the region has become a strategic arena where nations seek to protect their interests.

The Arctic region is witnessing a surge in activity driven by factors such as climate change, economic interests, and geopolitical rivalry. With the melting of ice opening up new shipping lanes and access to natural resources, nations are vying for control and influence in the region.

Considering its geostrategic importance many countries including Russia, China and US  are planning military presence to protect their interests. Moreover, the Arctic’s strategic location presents opportunities for enhancing military presence and projecting power. As a result, the Arctic is increasingly becoming a focal point for military competition and security concerns.

The Role of Satellite Communications:

Satellite communications play a crucial role in enabling military operations and ensuring situational awareness in the Arctic’s challenging environment. In this remote and harsh terrain, traditional communication infrastructure is often inadequate or nonexistent. Satellite-based systems offer a reliable means of connectivity, allowing military forces to maintain communication links, exchange critical data, and coordinate operations across vast distances. Moreover, satellite communications provide essential capabilities such as secure voice and data transmission, real-time surveillance, and navigation support, enhancing the effectiveness of military activities in the Arctic.

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Communication Challenges in the Arctic:

The U.S. military has identified four critical capabilities essential for operations in the region: Communications, Maritime domain awareness, Infrastructure, and Presence. However, conventional communication technologies face limitations in the Arctic, such as the inability to provide persistent monitoring and information sharing.

The Arctic presents unique challenges to communication systems, primarily due to its extreme environmental conditions and remote location. Harsh weather conditions, extensive darkness, cloud cover, and temperature extremes hinder the performance of traditional communication infrastructure and satellite systems. Moreover, the lack of land-based infrastructure and limited satellite coverage in the Arctic further exacerbate communication challenges, making it difficult to maintain reliable connectivity across vast distances.

Since the Earth is of the shape of a sphere, and a GEO orbit has a radius of about 42000 km, the Arctic areas above about 81° latitude are not covered by the geostationary satellites. Satellite communication systems based on satellites in the GEO, such as the INMARSAT system, have virtually no coverage north of 75° latitude, and none at all above 81° latitude. Activities in this area must often rely on manned expeditions to survey equipment and extract scientific data from sensors placed far from settlements. These costly operations pose risks for the equipment and crew carrying out the operations.

In addition to the technical and physical communication challenges mentioned, the Arctic is a challenge in itself. The weather and climate conditions are harsh and unfriendly to both man and equipment. Half of the year there is virtually no sunlight making energy harvesting from solar panels impossible. The equipment must therefore rely entirely on batteries. Temperatures are low and equipment floating in the sea will be subject to icing and potentially antenna drowning by waves during periods of roaring winds.

Moreover, ionospheric and polar cap effects will influence the radio channel between the node on Earth and the satellite. These effects are frequency-dependent. Extensive darkness and cloud cover limit electro-optical imaging and solar power; instability in the ionosphere disrupts radiofrequency propagation; Cloud cover inhibits EO/IR; geosynchronous satellites access can fail at latitudes above 70 degrees North limiting stare options and traditional communications; and temperatures can fall below -65 deg C (-85 degrees Fahrenheit) affecting hardware designs.

To cover the Arctic area, a system based on polar orbiting satellites is needed. Sensor nodes in the Arctic can potentially see every pass of a polar orbiting satellite. This simplifies design of constellations and swarms, which can be designed to have reasonable coverage by using satellites in only one orbital plane.

Moreover, the remote and inhospitable nature of the Arctic makes satellite infrastructure vulnerable to environmental hazards and potential interference from adversaries. In this context, ensuring the security and resilience of satellite communications is paramount to safeguarding military operations and protecting national interests in the region.

Initiatives

In response to the growing demand for reliable communication in the Arctic, governments and military organizations are collaborating with commercial satellite providers to develop innovative solutions. To address these challenges, governments and defense organizations are exploring innovative solutions, including the deployment of small satellites and the integration of emerging technologies.

The surge in the use of small satellites has attracted interest from various new stakeholders, including both commercial entities and governmental agencies. The US Army has notably demonstrated the efficacy of small satellites in bridging communication gaps inaccessible to geostationary satellites due to factors such as power limitations. Leveraging their affordability, rapid development timelines, and customizable adaptability to specific scenarios, these small satellites represent a promising avenue for enhancing connectivity. One such initiative, dubbed “SMDC-ONE,” aims to deploy a fleet of small satellites tailored for a singular objective.

Currently, the Arctic lacks broadband services, but several planned initiatives offer hope for future connectivity. For instance, the Norwegian Arctic Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO) initiative and the ambitious mega constellations like OneWeb and Starlink hold promise.

Kepler Communications has achieved a significant milestone by delivering high-bandwidth internet connectivity to the Arctic for the first time.

Through their innovative satellite-based broadband connection, speeds exceeding 100 Mbps were achieved, marking a groundbreaking advancement in Arctic communication. The successful deployment of this technology aboard the German icebreaker ship, Polarstern, stationed in the Arctic at 85°N, demonstrates Kepler’s ability to provide reliable connectivity even in the harshest environments. Utilizing polar-orbiting satellites circling the globe every 90 minutes, Kepler ensures a consistent data link, facilitating crucial scientific research for the MOSAiC expedition, which aims to study climate change in the Arctic over 12 months.

Aboard the Polarstern, Kepler showcased impressive data rates, with a downlink speed of 38 Mbps and an uplink speed of 120 Mbps, facilitated by a 2.4m Ku-band VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal). Operating in a polar orbit approximately 360 miles above the Earth’s surface, Kepler’s satellites circumnavigate the globe every 90 minutes, as detailed on the company’s website. Already, two satellites, KIPP and CASE, are operational, providing internet access to remote regions globally, with another satellite, TARS, scheduled for launch. Kepler envisions deploying approximately 200 nanosatellites into orbit between 2020 and 2023.

Kepler’s achievement not only revolutionizes connectivity in remote Arctic regions but also enhances the efficiency of scientific endeavors. With the Polarstern now equipped with high-bandwidth nanosatellite data link from low-Earth orbit (LEO), scientists can share, analyze, and disseminate large data files between the ship and shore, significantly improving their ability to study climate change. CEO Mina Mitry highlights the transformative impact of Kepler’s Global Data Service, providing a cost-effective means to transfer vast volumes of data collected during MOSAiC. As Kepler continues to expand its satellite network, its role in both commercial and scientific communication is poised to grow, shaping the future of Arctic connectivity and research.

Space Norway’s HEO initiative

The Arctic HEO initiative aims to enhance connectivity in the Arctic region through a two-satellite system operating in highly elliptical orbits, providing broadband coverage beyond the reach of geostationary satellites. Led by Space Norway, these satellites will carry payloads serving various purposes, including defense communications and commercial operations, with seamless handovers between satellites to ensure continuous coverage. Operating in non-geosynchronous orbits, these satellites will offer communication services for fisheries, energy sectors, rescue operations, and other applications, utilizing parabolic tracking antennas to adapt to the gradual movement of satellites across the sky without requiring complex antenna systems.

US Initiatives

The U.S. military, including the U.S. Coast Guard, faces significant challenges with unreliable communications infrastructure in the Arctic. The region lacks traditional land-based and satellite-based connections, creating a communication blackout that extends to critical entities like the Coast Guard.

Despite efforts to address the communication gap, challenges persist due to limitations in existing satellite systems. While the U.S. Space Force operates satellites like the Wideband Global SATCOM and Enhanced Polar System for Arctic coverage, they are insufficient to provide comprehensive connectivity in the region.

The U.S. military has embarked on efforts to enhance Arctic communications, with the US Air Force assuming control over the Enhanced Polar System (EPS) satellites in October 2019. Designed to provide secure communications for fighter jets operating above 65 degrees northern latitude, EPS fills a crucial gap left by existing military communication constellations like the Advanced Extremely High Frequency system. In parallel, the Air Force has explored collaborations with commercial satellite providers, conducting tests with SpaceX’s Starlink satellites during exercises, and planning future demonstrations involving Iridium and OneWeb constellations to leverage their high-bandwidth capabilities.

To bolster Arctic communications capabilities, the U.S. Northern Command seeks $130 million in funding for fiscal year 2021 to conduct experiments with SpaceX’s Starlink and OneWeb satellites. These initiatives aim to harness the potential of proliferated low-Earth orbit (PLEO) commercial satellite providers to swiftly and cost-effectively scale up communication capacity in the Arctic. Teaming up with Hughes Network Systems and OneWeb, the military plans to experiment with OneWeb’s constellation, facilitating connectivity between Arctic military bases and the joint force. Hughes will lead adaptation and integration efforts, while Intellian will provide user terminals, underscoring the collaborative effort to bridge the connectivity gap in the region and ensure interoperable and secure communication solutions for the U.S. military.

Collaboration with Commercial partners

For instance, the U.S. military has partnered with companies like SpaceX and OneWeb to leverage their low Earth orbit satellite constellations for Arctic communication experiments. OneWeb, in particular, plans to provide Long-Term Evolution (LTE) services, catering to mobile data communication needs. To facilitate user connectivity to the satellite constellation, a gateway-terminal infrastructure is essential, which would interface with local users or directly with the satellites. Procuring a contract with a telecommunications provider becomes imperative in this setup. OneWeb has outlined intentions to introduce Internet of Things (IoT) services, specific technical details are yet to be disclosed, as per information gleaned from the OneWeb news archive.

These partnerships seek to harness the benefits of emerging satellite technologies to bridge communication gaps and enhance connectivity for military operations in the Arctic region. By embracing collaboration and innovation, stakeholders are striving to overcome the communication challenges posed by the harsh Arctic environment and ensure seamless connectivity for activities ranging from scientific research to national security operations.

These efforts leverage low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations to provide high-bandwidth, low-latency communications capability and capacity, enhancing connectivity for military operations and scientific research. Similarly, initiatives such as Space Norway’s Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO) constellation and China’s efforts to expand satellite coverage in the Arctic aim to fill existing communication gaps and improve connectivity for both commercial and military purposes.

Additionally, recent advancements in satellite technology, such as Kepler Communications’ high-bandwidth satellite service, have demonstrated the feasibility of delivering broadband connectivity to remote Arctic locations, supporting scientific expeditions and enhancing data transfer capabilities.

China’s Ministry of Transport is taking proactive measures to enhance its communications capabilities in the Arctic region, particularly along Russia’s coastline.

Dispatching a specialized team, China aims to evaluate various technologies such as VHF radio connectivity and satellite systems like the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System. While the primary focus appears to be on improving communication with commercial vessels, there are concerns raised by the Swedish Defense Research Agency regarding the potential military applications of such initiatives, highlighting China’s strategic interest in the region.

The comprehensive assessment includes evaluating radio communications quality along the Northern Sea Route (NSR) from multiple locations in China, with the ultimate goal of potentially establishing an Arctic radio station to ensure uninterrupted communications. This initiative signifies China’s growing involvement in Arctic affairs, evident through its active presence on the NSR with its national carrier COSCO and significant investments in Arctic natural gas developments. However, suspicions regarding China’s military intentions persist, underscored by its establishment of satellite ground stations in strategic locations like Kiruna, Sweden, and plans for another in Greenland, raising concerns among military experts about potential monitoring capabilities.

Enhancing Seurity

To address security concerns and enhance the resilience of satellite communications in the Arctic, governments and defense organizations are implementing various measures. These include:

  1. Advanced Encryption: Implementing robust encryption protocols to secure satellite transmissions and protect sensitive information from interception or tampering.
  2. Redundancy and Diversity: Deploying redundant satellite systems and diverse communication pathways to mitigate the impact of disruptions and ensure continuity of operations.
  3. Anti-Jamming Technologies: Integrating anti-jamming capabilities into satellite terminals to counter potential interference or electronic attacks by hostile actors.
  4. Space Situational Awareness: Enhancing monitoring and surveillance capabilities to detect and respond to threats to satellite assets, including space debris and potential hostile actions.
  5. International Cooperation: Promoting collaboration and information sharing among Arctic nations to establish norms, standards, and protocols for ensuring the safe and responsible use of satellite communications in the region.

Starlink Achieves Milestone in Arctic Testing: Implications for Military Communication

Elon Musk’s visionary Starlink satellite constellation has achieved a significant milestone, completing nine months of rigorous testing by the US Air Force in the Arctic region. This development, reported by Bloomberg, holds profound implications for Starlink’s role in military communications, especially in critical areas such as the Arctic.

The Testing Process and Its Importance:

Conducted by the Air Force Research Laboratory, the undisclosed tests aimed to assess Starlink’s performance under harsh Arctic conditions, known for their challenging weather and limited traditional infrastructure. The results were highly encouraging, with Brian Beal, principal engineer at the lab, lauding Starlink as a “reliable and high-performance communications system.” This endorsement not only validates Starlink’s technological prowess but also signals potential collaborations with the Space Force, the US Armed Forces’ newest branch focusing on space operations.

Military Benefits of Starlink:

Starlink offers several strategic advantages for military applications:

Global Coverage: With its extensive network of satellites, Starlink ensures connectivity even in remote regions like the Arctic, where conventional communication options are scarce. High Bandwidth and Low Latency: Starlink promises faster data transfer speeds and reduced latency compared to existing satellite networks, vital for real-time communication and data transmission during critical operations. Resilience: Starlink’s distributed satellite architecture enhances resilience against outages, making it more reliable in demanding environments. Future Prospects and Challenges:

The successful Arctic testing positions SpaceX for lucrative contracts with the US Air Force and Space Force, bolstering Starlink’s commercial viability and cementing its role in military communication. However, some challenges loom:

Conclusion:

As the Arctic undergoes rapid transformation and emerges as a contested domain, secure satellite communications play a vital role in supporting military operations and maintaining situational awareness. By addressing the unique challenges and security risks associated with operating in the Arctic environment, governments and defense organizations can ensure the resilience and effectiveness of satellite communications systems. Through strategic investments, technological innovations, and international cooperation, the Arctic can be navigated as a frontier of opportunity while safeguarding national security interests and promoting stability in the region.

These efforts not only support military operations and national security interests but also enable scientific research, resource exploration, and economic development in the region. As the Arctic emerges as a critical frontier in the 21st century, effective communication systems will play a vital role in shaping the future of the region and safeguarding its environmental and strategic significance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

US Military’s Initiatives

 

 

References and Resources also include;

https://www.highnorthnews.com/en/us-military-cooperate-spacex-overcome-arctic-communication-blackout

https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2019/11/07/1943110/0/en/Kepler-Delivers-World-s-First-Arctic-High-Bandwidth-Satellite-Service-for-Largest-Polar-Expedition.html

https://www.highnorthnews.com/en/china-looking-expand-satellite-coverage-arctic-experts-warn-military-purpose

https://www.c4isrnet.com/battlefield-tech/space/2021/05/06/hughes-and-oneweb-working-to-fill-militarys-arctic-communication-gap/

 

 

 

About Rajesh Uppal

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