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Secure Satellite communications in Arctic for military as it is becoming arena of competition and militarization

As Global warming is melting the Arctic ice, and opening up new shipping trade routes and real estate, intense resource competition over an estimated $1 trillion untapped reserves of oil, natural gas and minerals has started. Human activities have grown in the Arctic by almost 400 percent in the last decade, the U.S. board estimated, in terms of shipping, mining, energy exploration, fishing and tourism. The Arctic is becoming a strategic area, where presence and knowledge about resources and what activities other nations are doing is mportant. Considering its geostrategic importance many countries including Russia, China and US  are planning military presence to protect their interests.


Communication Challenges in the Arctic

US Military has identified four critical capabilities  Communications, Maritime domain awareness, Infrastructure and Presence. Military requires persistent Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (C4ISR) capable of supporting domain awareness and information sharing in the Arctic region. However, the extreme environmental conditions of the Arctic challenge the ability of conventional technology to provide such monitoring, limiting their affordability and performance (e.g., coverage area or ability to hold track or trail). 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.

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Due to the lack of land-based infrastructure and satellite coverage, the communication infrastructure in the Arctic areas is generally scarce. There is little land-based infrastructure outside settlements on Svalbard, Greenland, Canada, Alaska and Russia. 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.


Furthermore, several communications systems based on Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites have orbits not covering the Arctic at all, such as Orbcomm and Globalstar. The ARGOS  system offers partial Arctic coverage, leaving Iridium  as the most used system providing continuous planet wide coverage. Some of the new proposed mega constellations such as OneWeb and Starlink will most likely provide coverage in the Arctic. 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.


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.


Arctic  Satellite Communications Initiatives

Small satellites have seen a rise in applications from many new actors, both commercial and governmental. The US Army also have demonstrated the use of small satellites to cover the communication gap where GEO is not reachable due to, for example, power limitations. The small satellites leverage lower cost, low development time and tailor made adaptability to a given scenario. The aim of this project, named “SMDC-ONE”, is also to launch a small fleet of satellites for a single purpose.


At present time there are no broadband services available for the Arctic area. A few planned systems might provide such services in the future. Examples are the Norwegian Arctic Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO) initiative, or the mega constellations OneWeb and Starlink. The first launch of test satellites for the mega constellations is expected to happen in 2018, and ground infrastructure is under construction. OneWeb will, among other services, offer Long-Term Evolution (LTE) services, used for mobile data communications. A gateway-terminal is
needed to connect user equipment to the satellite constellation. The GW will share the network with local users, or to connect to the satellites directly. A contract with a telecom provider will be needed. Information available through OneWeb news archive indicates that they plan IoT services by 2022, without specifying any technical details.


Kepler Delivers World’s First Arctic High-Bandwidth Satellite Service for Largest Polar Expedition

For the first time, a high-bandwidth internet connection has reached the Arctic. A small satellite startup called Kepler Communications has managed to deliver a satellite-based broadband connection, which reaches speeds of more than 100 mbps, to a German ice-breaker ship stationed in the Arctic.  The vessel is located around 85°N and is the home to the MOSAiC scientific expedition. The demonstration marks the first time in history that the central Arctic is successfully connected through a high-bandwidth satellite network. Aboard the Polarstern, Kepler has demonstrated data rates of 38 Mbps downlink and 120 Mbps uplink to a 2.4m Ku-band VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal).


Kepler’s satellites zip around the planet along a polar orbit, at an altitude just shy of 360 miles above the surface in the low-Earth orbit. The circle the globe every 90 minutes, according to Kepler’s website. Two of the company’s satellites, KIPP and CASE, are already in orbit providing internet access to the far reaches of the globe. Another, TARS, is scheduled to launch . The company eventually plans to release around 200 nano satellites into orbit between 2020 and 2023.


Kepler’s two polar-orbiting satellites are being used to transfer data for scientists taking part in MOSAiC, the most extensive research expedition ever to the North Pole. MOSAiC is an international expedition consisting of hundreds of scientists and operations crew, which will remain locked into the Arctic ice sheet to study the environment. The team will spend the next 12 months drifting along with the ice sheet, with the purpose of the mission being to take the closest look ever at the effects of climate change on the Arctic.


Thanks to Kepler, the Polarstern is equipped with the world’s only high-bandwidth nanosatellite data link delivered from low-Earth orbit (LEO) that is available in the Arctic. With the ship operating well outside the range of traditional high-throughput satellites, Kepler is providing 100x higher data speeds when its satellites pass over the vessel that would otherwise not be possible. This improved data transfer capability means scientists can share large data files between ship and shore, improving the ability to share, analyze, and disseminate information.


“Our Global Data Service provides a cost-effective means to transfer large data volumes that will be gathered over the course of MOSAiC,” explained Mina Mitry, CEO at Kepler. “Rather than only storing data locally and analyzing once physical storage can be sent back with supply vessels, we are giving scientists the ability to continuously transfer test and housekeeping data sets over our unique LEO satellite network.” Kepler’s Global Data Service™ will save time, money and, most importantly, improve the ability for MOSAiC scientists to carry out their critical mission of studying climate change.


Space Norway’s HEO initiative

The Arctic HEO initiative aims to use two satellites in an HEO-constellation in order to provide continuous coverage over the Arctic area, by offering a service comparable to regular GEO systems, specifically, the Inmarsat service. Keplers KIPP  aims to demonstrate Ku-band services from a CubeSat, also stating the Arctic area as a region of interest. Established in 2014, Space Norway is a state-run company tasked with procuring the ASBM constellation. The satellites form the core of the Arctic Satellite Broadband Mission — a two-satellite system designed to operate in highly elliptical orbits so they can enable broadband connectivity at latitudes beyond where geostationary satellites can reach. Whereas geostationary satellites provide coverage from over the equator, the ASBM satellites will use their unique orbits to cover the Arctic Circle, specifically 65-degrees north and above. The ASBM satellites will each carry an X-band payload for the Norwegian Ministry of Defense, a U.S. Air Force Extremely High Frequency communications payload, and a commercial Ka-band payload operated by Space Norway and leased by British satellite operator Inmarsat.


Skare said the Space Norway satellites will circle the Earth in 16 hours. The satellites will shut off communications services as they swing close to the Earth in the south, and reactivate service during the longer stretch of their elliptical orbits over the north, he said. Skare said each satellite will spend around 10 hours in the “active arc” part of their coverage, and will ensure seamless handovers from one satellite to another. The satellites will provide communications services for fisheries, energy sector customers, rescue operations and other applications, according to the parties involved.


Since the satellites will use non-geosynchronous orbits, they will move across the sky, but not so fast that flat, electronically steered antennas become necessary, Skare said. Maritime vessels already have parabolic tracking antennas to accommodate movement caused by waves, which will be sufficient to adjust to gradual changes in satellite location, he said.


China Looking to Expand Satellite Coverage in Arctic

China’s Ministry of Transport is dispatching a team to measure and optimize the country’s communications capabilities in Arctic waters along Russia’s coastline. The team will be assessing a number of technologies, including Very High Frequency (VHF) radio connectivity, medium-frequency Navtex systems, and the DSC system part of the Global Maritime Distress Safety System, Xinhua Chinese news agency reports.


Additionally, the team aims to evaluate coverage of China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System along the route and to propose possible optimizations for the positioning of future satellites for the yet-to-be fully completed system. Chinese officials cite improved communications with its growing number of commercial vessels in the Arctic as a primary impetus for technology upgrades. However, the country’s efforts for improved satellite data in the Arctic can also have a military use as a recent report by the Swedish Defense Research Agency highlights.


The team will assess the quality of radio communications from the eastern and western terminus of the NSR from four locations in China: Tianjin, Harbin, Manzhouli and Changji. Based on the results China wants to determine the feasibility of constructing an Arctic radio station to ensure uninterrupted radio communications. This is the third and most comprehensive communications test China is conducting in the Arctic following smaller-scale efforts in 2016 and 2017. The latest results will be used to update China’s “Arctic Navigation Atlas” and “Arctic Northeast Passage Communication Guide.”


Behind Russia, China has been most active on the NSR and its national carrier COSCO has sent up to 30 vessels through the Arctic over the past 4 years. This year alone the company aims to complete 14 transit voyages, almost twice the figure of 2018. The country also secured significant ownership stakes in Russia’s largest Arctic natural gas developments, Yamal LNG and Arctic LNG 2.


In 2016 military experts warned that China may be using its first wholly-owned overseas satellite ground station, the China Remote Sensing Satellite North Pole Ground Station, located in Kiruna, Sweden for improved monitoring capabilities by its military. An additional satellite ground station, to be located in Greenland, was announced by Chinese officials in 2017.


US Military Arctic Gap

The U.S. military, including the U.S. Coast Guard, have long expressed concern about unreliable communications in the polar regions. The Arctic lacks many of the traditional land-based communication and satellite-based connections. The lack of communication capabilities also extends to the United States Coast Guard (USCG).


During 2020 annual ‘State of the Coast Guard” address its Commandant, Admiral Karl Schultz highlighted how Coast Guard personnel frequently have to dig through several feet of snow to repair degraded ground-based communications equipment. The USCG confirmed that it is exploring new satellite communications capabilities in cooperation with the Department of Defence. Schultz stressed that the issue requires a “whole-of-government” approach and that the communication blackout in the Arctic needs to be solved immediately.


The U.S. Space Force’s primary satellite communications system, Wideband Global SATCOM, does not provide polar coverage. The Wideband Global SATCOM, is designed to provide connectivity between 70 degrees north and 65 degrees south — basically to the edge of the polar region. And while the Space Force does operate two Enhanced Polar System satellites for Arctic coverage, those satellites serve as complements to the Advanced Extremely High-Frequency constellation for nuclear-survivable high-priority military communications. It is not intended to serve as the Arctic alternative Wideband Global SATCOM. Traditional commercial satellites’ availability is also limited.


In testimony to the US Senate Armed Services Committee in May 2020 the commander of the US Northern Command, Air Force General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, described the Arctic as “the new frontline to our homeland defense.” O’Shaughnessy explained that ensuring “basic communication” in the Arctic is a major priority. “It is my number one priority to have Arctic com’s, and I think the proliferation of LEO (low earth orbit satellites) and a Starlink or a One Web type solution is the way to get it fastest.” In addition to the $130 million requested for 2021, he asked for additional funds in the amount of $110 million for the following fiscal year. During the testimony he highlighted Russia’s steady expansion of military presence in the Arctic, including advanced, long-range cruise missiles, long-range bombers, and new radar installations.


That leaves U.S. Northern Command with a significant gap in the connections available to its war fighters and platforms. “Connection capabilities [in the Arctic] are limited and lack resiliency. We’re challenged in areas from basic point-to-point connections to communication with our distributed sensors,” Lazane said. “Having a reliable broadband communications capability for Arctic operations is the top unfunded priority of USNORTHCOM. With the increase of great power competition in the Arctic, there is a need for additional communications capability and capacity.”


US Military’s Initiatives

The U.S. military has initiated the first steps in improving Arctic communications. In October 2019 the US Air Force took control over new satellites providing secure communications for the Arctic. The Enhanced Polar System (EPS) consists of two satellites in a highly elliptical orbit providing continuous coverage for fighter jets above 65 degrees northern latitude. The system fills a gap in the Advanced Extremely High Frequency military communication constellation, which does not cover the polar regions. The U.S. Air Force has also conducted initial tests – outside the Arctic – using commercial satellites. During a recent exercise a U.S. Air Force AC-130 plane connected with SpaceX’s high-bandwidth Starlink satellites. Future demonstrations involving Iridium and OneWeb satellite constellations are planned.


The U.S. Northern Command, which contains the North American Arctic, is seeking $130 million in funding for fiscal year 2021 for polar communications experiments in cooperation with SpaceX’s Starlink and OneWeb satellites, a joint venture between Airbus and OneWeb. The plan involves using prototype terminals capable of uplinking to these new low earth orbit constellations consisting of thousands of mass-produced small satellites.


“Leveraging emerging proliferated low-Earth orbit commercial SATCOM providers in the Arctic enables the United States (and our allies) the opportunity to scale communications capability and capacity quickly in a cost-effective manner,” Lazane said. “The unique capabilities provided by PLEO [proliferated low-Earth orbit] commercial SATCOM providers in the Arctic enables access to high-bandwidth, low-latency communications capability and capacity.”


The U.S. Air Force is teaming up with Hughes Network Systems and OneWeb to test how the latter’s new commercial broadband satellites could fill the military’s Arctic communications gap, the two companies announced May 2021. Now through AFRL, the military will begin experimenting with OneWeb’s constellation in the Arctic. The company said it has launched 182 satellites to date, with plans to continue growing the constellation and deliver coverage to the Arctic region by the end of 2021.


The businesses will work with the Air Force Research Lab to connect Arctic military bases to each other and the joint force via OneWeb’s growing low-Earth orbit satellite constellation. Hughes will serve as the prime contractor, leading adaptation, integration, testing and management for the demonstration. Intellian will provide user terminals that can connect to the OneWeb network.


“The OneWeb constellation has been designed to enable low-latency broadband access across the globe, allowing connectivity in previously unreached areas — a capability that is ideal for tactical, multi-domain operations in the Polar region and beyond,” said Dylan Browne, head of government services with OneWeb. “Working together with Hughes, we will bridge the gap in connectivity for NORTHCOM with an interoperable and secure solution.”


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