With military personnel spread over 160 countries and 4,800 sites worldwide, the US armed forces have been increasing efforts to provide SATCOM coverage to expeditionary units and enable communication on the move over greater distances.
These capabilities enable data traffic and the use of smartphones, broadband, video, GPS, AI, cloud computing, networking and C2 systems, in addition to increasing situational awareness and enabling soldiers to better face near-peer adversaries in congested and contested environments.
Shephard spoke to several experts about the principal benefits of SATCOM coverage for the DoD. Todd Harrison, director of defence budget analysis and director of the Aerospace Security Project at CSIS, pointed out that the main advantage of using SATCOM is the mobility it provides to land forces. ‘It does not keep you tied down to specific areas or to wired networks,’ he noted, emphasising that it allows ground troops to have proportionally greater effects.
Ryan Peoples, partner at Renaissance Strategic Advisors, stressed that SATCOM improves overall battlefield connectivity, enabling the use of real-time ISR and C2 data when deploying forces. The ability to provide BLoS communication is SATCOM’s main benefit, according to his colleague, senior associate Elliott Killick.
Dominic Perez, CTO at Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions, explained that SATCOM will play an important role on tomorrow’s battlefield. ‘The demand for SATCOM is going to get higher, but also the demand for deployed services is increasing,’ he noted.
Aware of these advantages, the US Army is keen to improve its capabilities and is carrying out a SATCOM modernisation process in order to provide global, resilient voice and data exchange to support Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) and Multi-Domain Operations (MDO).
Led by the PEO Command, Control, Communications-Tactical (PEO C3T), the process involves keeping the worldwide dispersed forces connected to one another and the army’s global information network.
Paul D Mehney, director of public communications at PEO C3T, explained that the modernisation effort will provide commanders with multiple communication pathways, including Primary, Alternative, Contingency and Emergency (PACE) plan options to facilitate access to applications and data.
It forms a common operating picture and enables ‘forces to harmonise and synchronise activities and actions across the battlefield and around the world’, according to Mehney. In terms of capacities, the effort comprises improving SATCOM mobility, computing power and interoperability, while optimising and increasing bandwidth and resiliency in congested and contested environments.
‘Multi-path, high-speed, high-capacity data transport is fuelling the need for PACE options,’ Mehney noted, adding that ‘new easy-to-deploy, quick set-up/tear-down SATCOM terminal solutions’ enable units to relocate rapidly while delivering resilient network transport ‘to ensure the exchange of critical real-time battlefield situational awareness’.
In this sense, the US Army is delivering phased network enhancements on a two-year interval basis. It began in FY2021 with Capability Set (CS) 21, which the service is currently fielding. Both CS23 and CS25 are in development, building off the CS21 foundation.
According to Mehney, in this end-to-end tactical network approach, each CS builds off the previous one and is ‘infused with commercial solutions’ informed by synchronised assessments, experimentations and evaluations in developmental and operational fields. Expeditionary satellite terminals, improved baseband and more secure high-throughput waveforms are part of CS21, which focuses on making the network more expeditionary and intuitive.
It also comprises new data radios, more expeditionary SATCOM gear, updated mission command applications and cross-domain solutions/gateways to allow units to better communicate with coalition partners and across commercial and military networks. One element is the Integrated Tactical Network (ITN) approach that injects new commercial components and network transport capabilities into the army’s tactical network environment to provide manoeuvre brigades and below with smaller, lighter, faster and more flexible systems.
In FY2021, the army integrated the 2nd Cavalry Regiment’s Stryker platforms with new commercial ITN systems. This unit is providing feedback on these capabilities as part of a Stryker characterisation effort to inform CS23 designs. This CS, in turn, focuses on increasing capacity and resiliency and will harden network systems and begin to integrate Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) constellation capability.
The resulting network design will focus on providing Stryker formations with better on-the-move communications and links between mounted and dismounted soldiers, in addition to a variety of connectivity options for commanders through the new ITN capability.
Under CS23, the army is preparing for an ‘upcoming pilot this winter to evaluate a variety of new and emerging commercial network communications prototype solutions’ that will be integrated onto select armoured brigade combat team vehicles, as Mehney pointed out.
This is intended to increase armoured brigades’ survivability, mobility and lethality and allow them to rapidly share the current battlefield situation and expeditiously synchronise enablers to support soldiers in contact. The pilot unit will be the 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, at Fort Stewart, Georgia.
For its part, CS25 aims to make the network more automated and protected, while CS27’s goals work towards achieving MDO dominance.
Under CS21, the army started fielding new SATCOM and other communications systems to modernise its Expeditionary Signal Battalions, with the upgraded formations known as Expeditionary Signal Battalions-Enhanced (ESB-E).
ESB-E’s agile network tool suite is tailorable and scalable, with different-sized SATCOM systems, to enable support units, from individual teams to corps level, across a wide variety of mission sets.
Mehney highlighted that the ESB-E’s agile network tool suite is tailorable and scalable, with different-sized SATCOM systems, to enable support units, from individual teams to corps level, across a wide variety of mission sets. The suite comprises systems that are smaller, lighter, faster to set up and easier to operate, with increased network communication PACE plan options.
The ESB-E baseline equipment package includes a new medium ground satellite terminal and baseband kit, with the Scalable Network Node (SNN), which replaces the much larger At-The-Halt Tactical Network Transport equipment, increasing unit mobility and command post survivability. The reduced size and system complexity of the SNN enable the ESB-E to ‘increase its network support to other units with more nodes and less manpower while decreasing transportation requirements by over 60%’, according to Mehney.
This winter, the army will move the ESB-E effort forward and start fielding the programme’s largest SATCOM terminal, the Phoenix E-Model, which is intended to provide transport diversity, greater mobility and enhanced operational flexibility. Mehney stated that it is a versatile quad-band solution that will deliver ‘expeditionary, high-bandwidth network connectivity to large division, corps and taskforce-size headquarters’.
Also under the ESB-E programme, in June 2020, the service awarded Dtech Labs, Klas and PacStar support contracts to provide network and mobile communication hardware for systems slated for field tests. A provider of rugged communications solutions and part of Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions, PacStar is supplying its 400-Series modules. Perez explained that these are lightweight solutions that provide agile and reliable tactical communications for expeditionary units.
The 400-Series modules are also part of the Transportable Tactical Command Communications (T2C2) programme, another element of CS21. T2C2 is an initial-entry satellite system that allows agile robust voice, video and data communications without the need for static infrastructure. It provides SATCOM capability to small detachments and teams operating in remote locations, enabling them to securely relay critical and time-sensitive information, increasing situational awareness for the entire operation.
The system uses expeditionary inflatable satellite antennas: the soldier-portable T2C2 Lite for early-entry forces and the T2C2 Heavy for company-level command post/FOB communications. This approach offers a larger dish size, with increased capability and bandwidth efficiency.
In another initiative, the army has been working closely with several vendors to better understand the capabilities of emerging commercial satellite constellations in multiple Earth orbits, as well as the services and ground terminals needed to access them. Planners are evaluating new commercial Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and MEO options in various stages of maturity, as well as protected high-throughput enhancements being made to Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) military capabilities.
LEO, MEO and GEO systems are expected to enhance the army’s ability to securely transport data between the command post, soldiers on the move and from sensors to shooters in support of JADC2. These new high-throughput, low-latency SATCOM solutions will also help the service implement network modernisation efforts such as AI data aggregation and edge cloud services.
Mehney explained that the army is ‘carefully laying a strong foundation’ to enable the secure integration of ‘the right solutions into its tactical network design at the right time and cost’. Current experimentation and development efforts have been preparing the ground for future decisions on how these emerging capabilities could best fit into CS network modernisation design goals. ‘The army will always leverage commercial services to supplement military SATCOM to meet its extensive warfighting data transport needs,’ he concluded.
The analysts Shephard interviewed pointed out that the use of commercial SATCOM brings advantages and risks at the same time. Killick claimed that commercial services are more viable, adding that their terminals are more capable and multi-mission as constellation providers refresh equipment more frequently and do not keep satellites in orbit for decades.
In his opinion, one of the disadvantages is the military user not having control over the terminals, and relying on what current vendors offer, in addition to having to acquire new terminals in the short and medium term when suppliers update their equipment. Restrictions on being able to use different frequency spectrums, particularly in foreign countries, is another limitation, according to Killick.
Harrison, meanwhile, highlighted that the DoD needs to work out a better way to leverage commercial SATCOM. These services are much less expensive than building and maintaining military solutions, are more available and provide higher data rates.
Perez then stressed that, by using government satellites, armed forces would not face communication contention with other commercial users, which would guarantee access to this capacity in emergency cases or congestion periods. ‘Commercial providers may have no way to know if this is someone watching Netflix at home or an expeditionary force in Africa, for instance,’ he claimed.
For Peoples, the issue is a ‘double-edged sword’ since it is very expensive to acquire and develop the architecture of military satellites. However, once the equipment is procured, the bandwidth is free. In his view, the DoD could take advantage of commercial services, such as large constellations of small systems and high-bandwidth satellites, and mix them with its own SATCOM assets. From a security angle, Killick explained that developing encryption methods that allow transmitting over commercial satellites would be ‘transformative’ for the armed forces.
Against this background, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has been analysing the potential of commercial satellites for defence purposes in the last few years. A report issued in 2015 pointed out that procurement of this type of service could create opportunities to potentially save tens of millions of dollars annually.
The document stated that some of the DoD component services were independently procuring SATCOM to meet their individual needs, and the acquisition of bandwidth was ‘fragmented and inefficient’, limiting opportunities for bundled purchases and shared services.
The other US services also have been paying close attention to SATCOM and the solutions available on the market. DoD Instruction 8420.02, released by the Office of the Chief Information Officer in November 2020, stated that the department and its components will give full consideration to innovative and non-traditional SATCOM capabilities offered by commercial industry.
It noted that the implementation of such capabilities ‘must address interoperability, resiliency, transparency, accountability, funding and training consistent with DoD requirements’.
The US Space Force (USSF), for example, has been carrying out many efforts in this area, including the Wideband Global SATCOM system, which is a constellation of highly capable military satellites that provides worldwide flexible, high-data-rate and long-haul communications.
The USSF also runs the Protected Tactical SATCOM (PTS) programme, which is intended to connect troops using jam-resistant SATCOM. PTS will employ a constellation of geostationary systems, commercially hosted payloads and coalition partner satellites to provide protected communications via a strong ground control network. Under this effort, in 2020, the service awarded Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman contracts worth around $700 million to design prototype payloads.
The space force is also working on the Evolved Strategic SATCOM programme with the goal of ensuring continued capacity, coverage and protection for secure, anti-jam and survivable communication.
The USMC, meanwhile, has been working on the Marine Corps Wideband Satellite – Expeditionary (MCWS-X), which is a small, lightweight man-packable terminal for expeditionary forces that allows the use of multiband (X, Ku, and Ka) super HF SATCOM and delivers reliable high-bandwidth voice, video and data.
To support this effort, the service awarded L3Harris Technologies an $88 million contract in November 2020 to provide Panther II Very Small Aperture Terminals. These allow the operator to easily change modems, RF band, aperture size and signal acquisition method.
Furthermore, the USMC’s SATCOM-based communications hub, Networking on the Move, allows infantry troops to fight at high tempo while still maintaining critical C2 functions.
US Special Operations Command is also keen to equip its expeditionary troops with advanced SATCOM capacities, enabling resilient and assured communications. In 2020, it awarded Leonardo a contract worth up to $977 million to provide and manage its Global Access Network system as well as supply worldwide SATCOM and support for its HQ, components and major subordinate units. The agreement covered an end-to-end custom-engineered, global commercial SATCOM solution.
Also last year, the command selected Cubic to deliver its GATR inflatable SATCOM terminals and baseband communications equipment under a deal with a ceiling of $172 million. The agreement covered five one-year ordering periods for the procurement of Cubic’s 1.2m and 2.4m GATR terminals.
Additionally, the DoD has invested $7.4 billion to develop, build and begin delivering the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS). This is intended to provide mobile-phone-like voice and data services to military users and enable a tenfold increase in communications capacity.
The full constellation of MUOS satellites has been in orbit for over four years. However, a GAO report issued in September 2021 pointed out that the DoD is not fully using the system due in part to the armed forces’ delays in delivering compatible radio equipment to users, which has been forcing them to rely on an older SATCOM system.
Although SATCOM involves a number of cutting-edge solutions, the technology still faces limitations and has the potential to evolve. In terms of US programmes, Harrison claimed that one of the main challenges involves synchronising the different efforts carried out by the different services since the ‘responsibility for satellite communications is fragmented across the military’. Killick agreed and added that SATCOM networks across the DoD are ‘very heterogenous’.
For Peoples, although the armed forces have been working on increasing the availability of bandwidth to more simultaneous users, this is an area that can be improved as they are ‘big consumers’. He stressed that using a mix of laser and RF capabilities could enable much higher data rates.
According to Perez, however, SATCOM is slower than other services, which limits responsiveness. In this sense, he explained that there are systems available on the market, known as WAN accelerators, which can speed up the communication process. Also, relying on LEO solutions could be another possibility.
From the army’s point of view, Mehney stressed that leveraging emerging satellite technologies in multiple orbits is another option since it can provide resiliency, a huge bandwidth increase and lower latency. He noted that being able to securely access both military and commercial satellite capabilities in multiple orbits would provide ‘alternate SATCOM paths for greater network resiliency’ as well as ‘options for commanders to enhance their communications PACE plans’.
If implemented, all these improvements could lead to SATCOM having an even more prominent role on the battlefield of the future. As Harrison highlighted, SATCOM is a ‘real force multiplier’, and it would greatly inhibit the manoeuvrability and flexibility of ground forces if they could not use it. ‘That is why the military should redouble its efforts to find more resilient and diverse ways of getting the SATCOM services it needs,’ he claimed.
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