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The Importance of Multi-Orbit, Multi-Band COMSATCOM for the DoD

In our last article on the Government Satellite Report, we sat down with Bill Milroy, the CTO and Co-Founder of ThinKom, to discuss recent testing that his company conducted in collaboration with SES and Hughes. As Mr. Milroy explained, this testing was intended to demonstrate, “…high-performance multi-orbit, multi-constellation service capable of supporting Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) requirements for government missions.”

Put plainly, the demonstration conducted by ThinKom, SES, and Hughes effectively illustrated the ability for an end satellite user to seamlessly roam between satellite services originating in different orbits and leveraging different frequency bands.

To learn more about why this multi-orbit and multi-band capability is becoming increasingly essential for U.S. military users, we reached out to Ben Pigsley, the Senior Vice President of Defense Networks at SES Space & Defense.

During our discussion with Ben, we asked about the trends driving the U.S. military to embrace commercial satellite communications (COMSATCOM) from multiple orbits, the maturity and availability of multi-orbit and multi-band satellite services, and what both the government and satellite industry need to do to make this capability readily available for the warfighter.

Government Satellite Report: Can you define multi-band satellite for our readers? How is it different from multi-orbit satellite?

Ben Pigsley: Simply put, when two or more satellites are operating in different earth orbits – such as Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) or Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) – and are operating in the same frequency band, it is considered multi-orbit. When two or more satellites are operating in the same orbit – such as GEO, MEO, or Lower Earth Orbit (LEO) – but are operating in different frequency bands – such as Ku, Ka, C, or X – it is considered multi-band.

Both scenarios offer an added level of resiliency to a satellite network if you have the ground equipment to take advantage of the capability.

GSR: Why is multi-band satellite capacity crucial for the U.S. military? Why is multi-orbit crucial? Why does the military need its satellite architecture to include both?

Ben Pigsley: Today, the military is facing near-peer adversaries that have demonstrated their ability to disrupt, deny, and degrade our communications networks. In today’s environment, government networks are both congested and contested with deliberate and directed jamming, cyberattacks, and kinetic attacks.

Both multi-orbit and multi-band network solutions offer an elevated level of resiliency and increase availability to government customers. Higher availability is critical to the command-and-control networks operated by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).

GSR: What trends are we seeing – and what capabilities are we seeing from our adversaries – that make the creation of a multi-orbit, multi-band satellite architecture essential?

Ben Pigsley: I’ll go back to the fact that networks today are both congested and contested. Network congestion can cause unwanted disruptions due to what we refer to as “blue-on-blue” interference. This occurs when satellite transponders and networks are heavily loaded and one “friendly” network causes problems for another “friendly network” due to equipment malfunctions, improper equipment settings, and other unintentional actions.

“…increased resiliency in network design allows operations to continue either on another satellite in a different orbit, or on another satellite in a different band in the same orbit.” – Ben Pigsley

Contested commercial networks arise from adversaries with sophisticated, aggressive jamming techniques. In both cases, increased resiliency in network design allows operations to continue either on another satellite in a different orbit, or on another satellite in a different band in the same orbit.

GSR: What different elements or segments comprise the end-to-end network or infrastructure needed for effective multi-band and multi-orbit operation?

Ben Pigsley: Other than having the right space segment design, the most critical part of a highly resilient network is state-of-the-art ground terminals that can rapidly switch bands and orbits with minimal or no interaction from the operator.

Additionally, a sophisticated ground network infrastructure that incorporates a Software Defined – Wide Area Network (SD-WAN) is crucial. The addition of machine learning and artificial intelligence in the network are also key to the effective use of multi-band and multi-orbit networks.

GSR: Is the COMSATCOM industry ready to support multi-band and multi-orbit operation? What new technologies or equipment is necessary to enable this? When will that become available?

Ben Pigsley: Yes, the military’s industry partners are ready to support both multi-band and multi-orbit operations. In fact, leading operators like SES Space & Defense already provide these services using SD-WAN architectures delivering high-availability networks.

This is happening within all constellations — GEO, MEO, and LEO — supporting all types of government and military operations.

“Using the ICT Portal, military users can see the impact of network events and gain general situational awareness that can help key decision-makers make more data-driven, informed decisions.” – Ben Pigsley

It should be noted that ground terminal development has lagged the space segment development in this area. However, we see new terminal designs coming into the market every day that can take advantage of multi-band and multi-orbit operations.

GSR: Have there been any exciting advancements or tests done recently that show multi-band, multi-orbit capability may soon be on the horizon?

Ben Pigsley: We began testing and demonstrating multi-band and multi-orbit network designs in 2021. We implemented our designs with key customers at the end of 2022 and we continue to gather availability and performance statistics to help us make informed decisions on improvements to our networks.

Additionally, we’ve developed a customer portal – the ICT Portal – that is capable of tracking network performance in real time.  This capability enables our customers to see their networks in real time and make informed decisions on network loading. Using the ICT Portal, military users can see the impact of network events and gain general situational awareness that can help key decision-makers make more data-driven, informed decisions.

GSR: What can the government do to speed up the development of multi-band and multi-orbit capability from the COMSATCOM industry?

Ben Pigsley: I think the government is headed in the right direction with new requirements like SATCOM as a Managed Service (SaaMS), which does not specify specific orbits or frequency bands.  This allows industry to come up with creative solutions, which will likely include multi-orbit and multi-band offerings.

“In today’s environment, government networks are both congested and contested with deliberate and directed jamming, cyberattacks, and kinetic attacks. Both multi-orbit and multi-band network solutions offer an elevated level of resiliency and increase availability to government customers.” – Ben Pigsley

My suggestion is to continue and increase government interaction with industry so that future government requirements are clearly understood by industry.

GSR: What role can systems integrators and managed service providers play in delivering multi-band and multi-orbit implementations?

Ben Pigsley: Multi-band and multi-orbit networks require coordination and cooperation within industry. The most effective multi-orbit and multi-band network designs will include integrated solutions from multiple satellite operators, multiple terminal manufacturers, and multiple terrestrial network providers.

Industry can define ways to automate “roaming” from network to network, including orbits and frequencies, and develop system interfaces to orchestrate provisioning, operations, and billing of services. This type of coordination and cooperation can happen with both operators and integrators.

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