Late last month, the Government Satellite Report editorial team had the incredible opportunity to attend the SATELLITE 2023 Conference and Expo. During this annual space and satellite event, we were able to see and interact with some of the latest and most exciting satellite technologies. We also were privileged to hear leading experts from both the government and private industry discuss the military’s shifting satellite communications requirements, and how the satellite industry is innovating to help meet those requirements.
What was perhaps one of the most exciting takeaways from the numerous side sessions, panel discussions, and keynote addresses that we were able to attend was an incredibly overt change in the role and perception of commercial satellite across the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).
For years, military leaders debated the benefits of integrating commercial satellite capabilities into the military’s larger satellite and network architecture. Those debates eventually gave way to a broad understanding across the DoD that an integrated COMSATCOM and MILSATCOM architecture would deliver increased resiliency and assurance to military communications networks at a time when near-peer adversaries were increasingly building and demonstrating the capability to deny our nation’s tactical advantage in space.
“…commercial technologies are outpacing purpose-built defense systems in terms of warfighter-specific performance, even in areas like anti-jam capabilities and cyber defense capabilities…” – Craig Miller
But this year’s SATELLITE 2023 Conference took that a step further, with multiple military and industry satellite experts and decision-makers acknowledging that the integration of commercial and military satellite capabilities is not just beneficial – but essential – for the DoD to meet the connectivity and communications requirements of the modern warfighter.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in a panel discussion entitled, “Transforming Battlespace Communications,” which involved multiple notable government and satellite industry leaders, including:
- Craig Miller, President, Government Systems at Viasat (Moderator)
- Mike Dean, DoD SATCOM Chief at the U.S. Department of Defense
- Rich Pang, Vice President of Corporate Development at Telesat Government Solutions
- David Robinson, Director of Government Programs at Iridium
- Dr. Frank Turner, Technical Director at the Space Development Agency (SDA)
During this panel discussion, the participants weighed in on how the satellite requirements have evolved and changed in today’s modern military, and how this evolution has impacted the role of COMSATCOM in the DoD. The panelists also shared their opinions on the things that need to happen before COMSATCOM can truly become an integrated part of the military’s satellite and network architecture.
Why COMSATCOM is mission critical
A decade ago, the debate within the military satellite community was whether commercial capabilities could be trusted and relied upon to carry military communications – and if the military should be purchasing, launching, and operating their own purpose-built satellites or leasing commercial capacity. But things have changed tremendously in the course of that decade.
“…if you’ve got that decision superiority, regardless of how you build it…that gives the United States significant overmatch over its adversaries. And that’s what we’re trying to achieve.” – Dr. Frank Turner
The evolution of the Internet of Things (IoT), the shift towards a more connected and networked warfighter, and the need to generate, analyze, and gain actionable insights from data have revolutionized how the DoD conducts operations and what warfighters carry with them in theater. Col. Joseph “Ward” Roberts (Ret.), the Assistant Program Executive Officer, PEO C3T for the U.S. Army illustrated this point clearly and succinctly during a panel discussion earlier in the conference when he said, “We are now getting to the point where every soldier on the battlefield is networked. He has [the] capability to both generate and consume data.”
That ability to generate and consume data has become increasingly important for the DoD, which is looking to leverage data from every conceivable source in theater – warfighters, unmanned vehicles, sensors, and other devices platforms – to gain better situational awareness and a tactical, information advantage over our adversaries.
“There is never enough intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). There’s never enough. As the commander of INDOPACOM said, he wants to be able to blind the enemy, see them, and kill them. And in order to do that, you need all of the data that you possibly can and turn it into excellent information to yield decisions, period,” Dr. Turner explained. “And if you’ve got that decision superiority, regardless of how you build it…that gives the United States significant overmatch over its adversaries. And that’s what we’re trying to achieve.”
Dr. Turner’s quote illustrates just how important it is for today’s military to have real-time access to accurate, quality data that can be used to inform decision-making. And that free flow of data both within and outside of the battlefield is only really possible if commercial capabilities are being leveraged in tandem with military space capabilities – a fact that led Dr. Turner to conclude that, “None of this works if you don’t completely blend commercial [capabilities] and…whatever the government is buying.”
But it’s not just about getting access to additional bandwidth and capacity to meet the military’s increasing communications needs and requirements in theater. There is another reason why COMSATCOM is becoming essential to military operations – innovation.
“We are now getting to the point where every soldier on the battlefield is networked. He has [the] capability to both generate and consume data.” – Col. Joseph “Ward” Roberts (Ret.)
“I think the real benefit, at least as I look across the enterprise, that I can get with commercial services is they’re innovating on such a faster cycle than what we can do internally,” Dean explained. “It’s a killer app. it’s such an advantage to be able to rapidly introduce new capabilities.”
But the kind of innovation that the government and military are seeing from the commercial satellite industry has changed, as well, over the past decade.
The military was originally excited about the proliferation of satellites in non-Geostationary orbits (NGSO) and the decrease in latency that comes with it. The military was also excited about the addition of high throughput satellites (HTS) to both GEO and NGSO constellations. But today, they’re seeing innovations that can help with security, assuredness, and resiliency.
“…commercial technologies are outpacing purpose-built defense systems in terms of warfighter-specific performance, even in areas like anti-jam capabilities and cyber defense capabilities,” explained Miller. “…commercial capability should be a part of any warfighting enterprise going forward.”
And, according to the panelists, there is a very good reason for that.
What is good for you is good for me
The proliferation of satellites in new orbits closer to Earth made sense for commercial satellite operators and service providers because it enabled them to deliver fiber-like connectivity from space to their government, commercial, and consumer customers. A similar thing could be said about the integration of HTS into existing constellations – which gave operators higher throughputs and more capacity that they could sell to customers onboard each spacecraft.
“I think the real benefit…that I can get with commercial services is they’re innovating on such a faster cycle than what we can do internally. It’s a killer app. it’s such an advantage to be able to rapidly introduce new capabilities.” – Mike Dean
However, when it came to the integration of features that the military would want – features designed to increase security and assuredness – industry partners simply didn’t have a lot of motivation to make the investment. But that, too, has changed.
As our military’s focus has shifted to a new generation of near-peer adversaries that are incredibly capable, the importance of protecting space assets has increased. The new pacing threats that face our military have demonstrated the capability to deny or degrade satellite networks and communications. And these capabilities – including kinetic attacks and jamming capabilities – are a threat to both military and commercial satellites.
“I think that some of the threats that may be posed will be equally felt on both the DoD side and the commercial side [and will be] indiscriminating between commercial birds and military birds,” Robinson said. “I think – fortunately, or unfortunately – there’s actually a pretty significant compliment of things that you need to worry about on both the commercial side and the DoD side – in the space segment, at least.”
That extends beyond the space domain to the cyber domain, as well, where cyber threats have emerged that could impact both commercial and military satellites and their end-users. Luckily, the industry is taking steps to address these, as well. As Pang explained, “…from a network perspective, I think our commercial customers demand cybersecurity as much as our government customers…”