When Congress passed FY22’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), there was one critical component of the bill that caught the attention of commercial satellite providers across the country. That component was a Congressional directive that called for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to report on its current commercial satellite communication initiatives, specifically inquiring about the use of emerging non-geostationary orbit satellite (NGSO) services in advancing U.S. government and military operations.
In an effort to help Congress better understand the different use cases, services, and emerging solutions that NGSO satellites can provide to all military domains, as well as highlight the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) benefits that NGSOs can deliver to the U.S. government, SES Space and Defense recently conducted a series of congressional NGSO demonstrations on Capitol Hill.
To learn more about why now is the time for the U.S. government to take advantage of NGSO capabilities, and to get an update on what NGSO technologies and military use cases the company demonstrated to Congress, the Government Satellite Report was able to catch up with SES Space and Defense’s Vice President of Government Affairs, Marketing, Corporate Communications, Jon Bennett.
Here is what he had to say:
Government Satellite Report (GSR): A few weeks ago, SES Space and Defense held demonstrations of its NGSO satellite solutions for lawmakers in Congress. What was the company demonstrating? What capabilities were you looking to show these Congresspeople?
Jon Bennett: Whenever we are in front of Congress, especially when we work with the Armed Services Committee or other Committees of Jurisdiction, we want to highlight the game changing impact satellite solutions have on U.S. national security.
When we held that demonstration, our first and foremost priority was to showcase what we’re doing for each of the combatant commands and their respective areas of responsibility (AOR). For example, what has SES Space and Defense done from a SATCOM perspective to support Navy equities for the Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM)? Well, that’s pretty easy.
We discussed our roll-on/roll-off Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) solution, what we call Navy MEO Wi-Fi. We showcased to our congressional stakeholders on the impacts SATCOM is having on the soldiers, sailors, and marines that have been in port, especially during the pandemic where COVID restrictions really limited our warfighters during port.
We showcased how we have been able to allow those folks – who have not been able to disembark their respective ships – to FaceTime with family, access online banking services, attend online schooling, etc. These are all things that we on the mainland take advantage of. So, we were able to demonstrate those connectivity strides and improved quality of life measures to Congress.
It all boils down to helping Congress understand why they should care about satellite communications, because communications is the critical backbone of any military operation.
GSR: Why was it important for legislators to see these capabilities?
Jon Bennett: Without communication capabilities being delivered warfighters would be going into theatre, blind. Tactical brigades would be severely hampered with operations potentially limited. The bottom line is that satellite communications offer real-time, highly accurate information to those that need to consume information and deliver actionable intelligence. We can’t deploy Stryker brigades without having the communication network, because those teams won’t be tethered to the decision makers, which leaves the warfighters uninformed. That can be disastrous, especially in the heat of battle.
If the U.S. doesn’t leverage SATCOM, we are certainly putting ourselves at an extreme disadvantage to our adversaries.” -Jon Bennett
We simply needed to express to our Hill stakeholders the need to provide resilient and diverse satellite communications is critical to meeting Department of Defense SATCOM requirements. At the end of the day, our demonstrations were dedicated to emphasizing how comms is the backbone to military operations. That’s what we wanted Congress to walk away with when we were finished.
GSR: Congress recently included some language about NGSO satellite in this year’s NDAA. Why is Congress so interested in NGSO satellite right now? Why would lawmakers be interested in the type of satellite solutions that the military is utilizing?
Jon Bennett: We always emphasize how space is an essential variable to the national security equation. I just mentioned how communications is the backbone to military operations, right? If the U.S. doesn’t leverage SATCOM, we are certainly putting ourselves at an extreme disadvantage to our adversaries.
When discussing why Congress is interested in NGSO, it goes back to General Raymond’s Fighting SATCOM initiative, which requires multi-band satellite communications – Ka, Ku, C-band etc. It also requires multi-orbit comms, such as geosynchronous (GEO), medium Earth orbit (MEO), and then low Earth orbit (LEO). What Fighting SATCOM does is that it allows the military to seamlessly transition from one orbital asset – the LEO, MEO, or GEO satellites – and at different frequencies to another.
That capability effectively complicates the enemy’s targeting calculus. For example, if adversaries like China, Russia, or North Korea degrades one of our assets from a MILSAT perspective, the military can then transition seamlessly to commercial capabilities at those various orbits and those various frequencies. That is why Congress cares about NGSO. Because for many, many years, GEO satellites are just sitting there. They’re big, fat, juicy targets, right? So, it is a lot easier to degrade those assets.
Whereas with your MEO assets – like O3b MEO and our soon-to-be-launched O3b mPOWER constellation – those satellites move equatorially. They’re constantly moving, which is a critical attribute to have for resilient SATCOM. Creating a highly secure and resilient asset that belongs in the space SATCOM ecosystem is just one aspect of why Congress has been showing interest in NGSO capabilities.
For us, the medium Earth orbit is our absolute sweet spot, because it’s uncontested and uncongested.” -Jon Bennett
From a security perspective, it allows the ability to mitigate threats through that resiliency, security, and redundancy. It all ties back to Fighting SATCOM and the ability to protect space assets, improve space situational awareness, and create missile warning and tracking capabilities, to name a few. If you have satellites in all three orbits able to track them in a scenario where an inbound missile is coming at high velocity and speed, we absolutely need that low latency at all layers to be able to track said missile threat. Congress is keenly interested in that, especially in the early rapid advancements you’re seeing with our adversarial nations. This is another reason lawmakers are interested in deploying the appropriate mix of military and commercial satellite solutions within the DoD Enterprise Architecture.
GSR: From a mission assurance and security standpoint, how does the military benefit from leveraging commercial NGSO satellite services?
Jon Bennett: First, let me explain what NGSO means. NGSO or Non-geostationary satellites occupy a range of orbital positions (LEO satellites are located between 700km-1,500km from the Earth, MEO satellites are located at 10,000km from the Earth), and do not maintain a stationary position, but instead move in relation to the Earth’s surface. For us, the medium Earth orbit is our absolute sweet spot, because it’s uncontested and uncongested. There isn’t any other commercial entity out there that has MEO assets, like we have in O3b and the soon-to-be O3b mPOWER. We have been operating and servicing the U.S. government in MEO since 2016.
The ability to operate in MEO is a lot cleaner, whereas with LEO there is a concern that it is going to be extremely congested. There are thousands of satellites moving at rapid speeds. And in order to get into space, you have to go into and through LEO, which raises a great amount of concern. I’m not saying there aren’t benefits from LEO, the Fighting SATCOM vision calls for assets in all three orbits. But there is a slight concern when it comes to space debris and having to go through LEO to get into MEO and GEO.
Another benefit of leveraging commercial, especially with NGSO, is the security, resiliency, and redundancy it provides. When you’re able to complicate an enemy’s targeting calculus, that ensures that the built-in security features of your assets can mitigate threats at the highest level.
To us, the greatest capability that we offer to the warfighter in all domains, whether it be in air, land, sea, or cyber, is what we call fiber-like latency.” -Jon Bennett
So how did we do that? When Boeing was designing and building our O3b mPOWER MEO capabilities, we leveraged reports, at the classified level, to help us understand and hone in on the security vulnerabilities that our satellites and space assets are currently facing. When we were building our next-gen capability in O3b mPOWER, we developed features that were built into the design phase, thus making O3b mPOWER inherently resilient and secure.
GSR: What new services, tools, and capabilities could these satellite solutions enable for the warfighter across the different warfighting domains?
Jon Bennett: Inherent security and flexibility are going to be key aspects. Those aspects are the heart of the new service tools and capabilities that O3b mPOWER is going to bring to the fight.
Simply put, O3b mPOWER has inherent security and flexibility through NSA CNSSP-12, and allows for command uplink decryption and telemetry downlink encryption while designed to meet ODNI stringent cybersecurity requirements
To us, the greatest capability that we offer to the warfighter in all domains, whether it be in air, land, sea, or cyber, is what we call fiber-like latency. We enable less than 150 millisecond round trip latency. It’s essentially fiber in the sky, and that’s what our MEO satellites offer.
There is a need for GEO, MEO, and LEO, because you need to have all three orbits to truly complicate an enemy’s attack and targeting calculus.” -Jon Bennett
Another emerging capability that we are offering is secure beam steering. We have 5,000 steerable beams at our disposal on these assets. That aspect is a definite gamechanger. Having thousands of customer beams per satellite has been previously unheard of. And if the DoD were to need it, we can also lump the beams together to get more throughput for the military.
GSR: When we say NGSO we’re effectively talking about LEO and MEO. Are there any particular advantages to these different orbits for the military? Why would the military want to choose services in one orbit over the other?
Jon Bennett: It all goes back to Fighting SATCOM. There is a need for GEO, MEO, and LEO, because you need to have all three orbits to truly complicate an enemy’s attack and targeting calculus.
Where you don’t have to rely on MILSAT at WGS, you can rely on COMSAT and seamlessly transition from one orbit to the another. And the standout advantages are the high throughput and low latency it provides. The closer you are to the to the Earth’s surface, the lower the latency will be. But the issue there is the lack of security on LEO assets. Look at what happened to the assets that were leveraged in Ukraine and how quickly Russia was able to degrade them.
With our MEO capabilities, the level of ability for the enemy to degrade is certainly not going to be the same. And there isn’t going to be a whole lot of packet loss. What that does is enable the U.S. government and its military to knowingly leverage a secure asset that has virtually the same level of latency as LEO. That to us is extremely important.
The ability for a Pentagon decision maker to act on intelligence in near real time from a tactical brigade unit, in theater and in the fight via ISR efforts is very impactful. For example, during the early days of Afghanistan, if you came across a treasure trove hardware with critical information on them, you used to have to rip out the hard drives, fly them back via a CH-47 Chinook, attempt to exfiltrate the information, and then days later you’ll be able to have some actionable intelligence.
We’re providing the ability to act on intelligence in near real time based on the fact that we offer low latency and high-throughput within those two orbital slots. That is why the military views LEO and MEO as particular advantages over GEO.