A communications satellite is an artificial satellite that relays and amplifies radio telecommunications signals via a transponder; it creates a communication channel between a source transmitter and a receiver at different locations on Earth. Military communications networks provide for the exchange of voice, video and data between geographically dispersed elements of a battle force. The military has become highly dependent on satellites for high data rate beyond line of sight communications as well as network-centric operations.
Military forces require situational awareness no matter where they’re located. From warfighters in the field, sailors on Navy ships, troops in flight and decision-makers at central command, everyone must share a common operating picture to accomplish the mission. Satellite communications can enable this common operating picture to support military operations that are becoming more complex as conflict areas grow more dispersed on a global scale.
Historically, DoD satellites have been custom-designed to specific mission sets with lengthy design and/or enhancement cycles at a high cost per spacecraft. These traditional military satellite communications programs were based on government contracts that typically specify and funds every aspect of the program. Major operators that supply satellite bandwidth to the military include ViaSat, Inmarsat, Intelsat, SES and EchoStar.
Broadband satellite internet in the US has historically been dominated by two companies, Hughes Network Systems and ViaSat. Their satellites are in geosynchronous orbit, which means the satellites never change position relative to the surface of the Earth. Internet service from geosynchronous satellites is subject to high latency, though, because the signal has to travel across thousands of miles of empty space and back again, which can result in delays of up to half a second. The military also uses its own Wideband Global SATCOM satellites, known as WGS.
The Pentagon has said for years that it needs more satellite capacity for global communications, video conferencing, drone live streaming and other activities that consume lots of bandwidth. The renaissance of commercial space has led to the design of numerous LEO constellations whose design and manufacturing methodologies potentially offer economies of scale previously unavailable.
Several commercial companies plan to establish space internet constellations consisting of hundreds to thousands of satellites, each to create global internet services. Starlink and its competitors, such as OneWeb, Telesat and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, have embraced a new approach to satellite internet. Rather than placing a couple big satellites in geosynchronous orbit, these companies want to place thousands of broadband satellites in low Earth orbit. These satellites are only a few hundred miles above the Earth so they can cut down delays to around 20 milliseconds, which is hardly noticeable from a user’s perspective..
The falling costs of space launch and the increasing capabilities of small satellites have enabled the emergence of radically new space architectures—proliferated constellations made up of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of satellites in low orbits. By 2027, SpaceX plans to have as many as 12,000 Starlink satellites in orbit beaming high-speed internet to tens of millions of customers around the planet. In addition to Starlink, OneWeb and Telesat have both announced their intention to create LEO broadband constellations with 650 and 292 satellites, Backed by Virgin Group, OneWeb is building a new global knowledge infrastructure accessible to everyone, particularly in rural areas in just 10 years, according to Greg Wyler, the founder of the company. Iridium company recently completing a two-year upgrade of its global communications network, replacing all of its satellites and upgrading the supporting ground infrastructure. Iridium’s satellite constellation now consists of 66 operational space vehicles and nine on-orbit spares.
The U.S. Air Force plan is to draw from a deepening well of commercially available satellite communications (SATCOM) technology to enhance military internet tactical networking for warfighters on the ground, in the air, and at sea. The idea is to capitalize on commercial communications satellite constellations under development to reduce military SATCOM costs, as well as enhance reliability and data throughput.
Another advantages of utilizing commercial satellite infrastructure is as a countermeasure to advanced electronic warfare capabilities developed and employed by Russia and China. The adversaries are less likely to target commercial satellites and they can also provide backup when main satellites are under jamming.
The report, released April 12 and titled “Space Threat Assessment 2018,” notes that while United States near-peer adversaries have made strides in more advanced kinetic weapons, such as direct ascent anti-satellite weapons, jamming technology also is seen as critical. For example, “China has made the development and deployment of satellite jamming systems a high priority,” according to the authors, Todd Harrison, Kaitlyn Johnson and Thomas Roberts.
Another near-peer, Russia, has displayed jamming and spoofing capabilities in the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Syria in the last several years. The report said the use of Russian technology in these conflicts “demonstrate[s] that Russia retains advanced electronic attack capabilities, despite some analysts’ claims that Russia’s ability to jam and spoof satellites has declined since 1991.”But the threat from jamming and spoofing attacks goes beyond near-peers. Iran and North Korea, so-called rogue states, also have demonstrated the capability and willingness to interfere with satellite communications and GPS signals, according to the report.
Challenges of exploiting commercial Satcom for military
In 2018, the Pentagon’s study, known as an “analysis of alternatives,” surveyed the entire industry and laid out options for how the military could benefit from the innovations in the private sector. One of the conclusions is that there are “opportunities to expand the use of commercial” communications satellites, said Norman Yarbrough, one of the Pentagon officials overseeing the congressionally mandated study.
The Pentagon identified a huge hurdle that could slow down future efforts to buy commercial satcom: most military terminals that give users access to satellites are not compatible with modern satcom technology. Because of the cost and the complexity of upgrading military equipment, it could take decades to update or replace all 17,000 wideband satcom terminals currently in the Defense Department’s inventory. “It’s not just about space, it’s about the terminals,” Yarbrough told the 2018 MilSatCom conference in Arlington, Virginia.
The ideal satcom device would have a roaming capability to use whichever provider in the area is available, said Brian Temple, the Defense Department’s acting deputy chief information officer. Making the vision for path-agnostic communications possible is the growing commercial space internet, based on commercial satellites..
For wideband communications, the Pentagon expects to rely primarily on four frequency bands: Ka, Ku, C and X. The Air Force is spending $10 million to develop a “flexible modem interface” that would connect existing terminals to commercial networks and military satellites. The modem upgrade, if successful, would provide seamless multi-band connectivity like a cellphone service.
He agreed terminals have long been a problem area. The military continues to operate legacy terminals that don’t take advantage of the capabilities of newer satellites, he said. The Navy launched five new MUOS narrowband communications satellites, and most ships at sea can’t access them due to a lack of terminals. There are 20 new GPS satellites in orbit that operate the more secure military signal, and “still no user equipment,” Teeple said. “It’s an indictment on our system.”
One of the core projects in this area is the Defense Experimentation Using the Commercial Space Internet (DEUCSI) program, which seeks the ability to move and share data seamlessly among a wide variety of fixed and mobile operating locations using constantly available, high-bandwidth, beyond-line-of-sight communications.
This new capability will be called path-agnostic communications because it aims to enable military users to communicate reliably to any location in the world without explicitly specifying which nodes of a communication network to use.
Defense Experimentation Using the Commercial Space Internet, or DEUCSI
A program known as Defense Experimentation Using the Commercial Space Internet, or DEUCSI, seeks to establish resilient, high-bandwidth, high-availability Air Force communications and data sharing by capitalizing on these kinds of developing commercial space internet networks.
The DEUCSI program experimented with SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband services and demonstrated download speeds of 610 megabits per second into the cockpit of a C-12J Huron twin-engine turboprop aircraft. Unlike the immobile satellite dishes used to connect with geosynchronous satellites, which only need to point at a single part of the sky, SpaceX’s phased-array antennas track satellites as they pass overhead.
The plan is to work with multiple satellite communications providers that are building constellations in low Earth orbit, and with services like SES’s O3B that operates a medium Earth orbit (MEO) constellation. “We’re not just focused on any one company,” said Greg Spanjers, the chief scientist at the Air Force’s experimentation office. “Between direct contract and subcontracts we’ve worked with SpaceX, Iridium, OneWeb, Telesat and O3B,” he said during the conference call.
The project has three phases: establish connectivity between several Air Force sites using commercial demonstration satellites and terminals; expand connectivity to many Air Force assets by proliferating user terminals to several locations and vehicle types, and special experiments to address military-unique requirements not otherwise met by commercial space internet vendors.
Air Force technicians have installed a SATCOM terminal on an AC-130 special operations gunship aircraft to test commercial SATCOM capabilities.
For the future, the Air Force will test a commercial SATCOM terminal aboard a KC-135 aerial refueling tanker next spring. In addition, Air Force contractors will modify terminals for military SATCOM.
AFRL’s Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation office is working with several companies — including SpaceX, Iridium, OneWeb, Telesat, Ball Aerospace, Lockheed, L3Harris Technologies and Raytheon Technologies — on a range of tasks from modifying terminals to providing broadband services through their own operational satellites.
The DEUCSI program is working with large defense contractors to help solve some of the integration issues associated with bringing commercial networks into military equipment. Air Force awarded DEUCSI contracts to Lockheed Martin Corp. in Bethesda, Md., and to Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo. Lockheed Martin got a $3.5 million contract, and Ball Aerospace won a $2.3 million contract to test a phased array on a ground vehicle so that one terminal could communicate with communications satellites in several different orbits. Iridium won a $2.5 million contract in July 2018, and L3Harris Communication Systems West won a $5.6 million contract in September 2018.
L3Harris is testing military ground terminals and will make minor modifications so they are compatible with the several commercial SATCOM services including O3B, Starlink and Telesat services.
Ball Aerospace received a $2.3 million contract, partially funded by the U.S. Army, to test a phased array on a ground vehicle so that a single terminal could be used to communicate with LEO, MEO and GEO satellites. SpaceX received a $28 million contract last year to assess Starlink by connecting the network to military platforms. The project also is testing the Iridium Certus service under a $2.5 million contract.
SpaceX is preparing to further test its Starlink satellite internet in a demonstration for the U.S. Air Force, the company revealed in a request to the Federal Communications Commission. The company disclosed it is working with Ball Aerospace for this test, with the contractor providing antennas necessary to connect to “tactical aircraft.” The Starlink test is under the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Defense Experimentation Using Commercial Space Internet (DEUCSI) program, for which Ball was awarded a contract in August 2020.
“The tests are designed to demonstrate the ability to transmit to and receive information from (1) two stationary ground sites and (2) one airborne aircraft at one location, and would add to these (3) limited testing from a moving vehicle on the ground,” SpaceX said. SpaceX noted that Ball specifically manufactures “conformal antennas for tactical aircraft” – meaning military jets.
The Air Force experiment will begin with ground testing near SpaceX’s Starlink manufacturing facilities in Redmond, Washington. Then the test will move to Edwards Air Force Base in California, for a “ground-to-air scenario.” “An antenna terminal will be integrated onto one aircraft. SpaceX is designing a custom installation kit consisting of mechanical plates for the low-profile antennas and a fairing to reduce wind drag in order to limit the impact to the aircraft for this installation,” SpaceX said in the FCC filing.
Lockheed Martin got a $3.5 million contract to develop a flexible architecture to allow seamless switching between multiple satellite constellations. The contracts to L3Harris and Northrop Grumman seek to establish the ability to communicate with Air Force and other military platforms via several different commercial space internet constellations using common user terminal hardware elements.
In April 2021, Officials of the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, announced a $12.8 million order to the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics segment in Fort Worth, Texas, late last month for the Defense Experimentation Using the Commercial Space Internet (DEUCSI) program. Lockheed Martin will integrate hardware and software, conduct additional test flights, and identifies the F-35 joint strike fighter aircraft as the required aircraft for the first flight test.
This project seeks the ability to move and share data seamlessly among a wide variety of fixed and mobile operating locations using constantly available, high-bandwidth, beyond-line-of-sight communications.
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