Government, industry officials cite diversity as key to resiliency at Milsatcom USA Conference

Access to satellites operating in different orbits and bandwidths will help keep the U.S. military connected in an increasingly contested environment where information can be the difference between victory and defeat, industry and defense officials said.

Communications satellites, both government and commercially operated, are subject to an growing array of jamming and even kinetic threats from near-peer U.S. adversaries, these officials said. In this environment, diversification promotes resiliency while complicating any adversary’s service disruption plans.

“We need diversity – we need a wide range of diversity,” said Kimberly Morris, satellite communications operations division head at the U.S. Naval Network Warfare Command.

Speaking June 26 here at the 4th annual Milsatcom USA conference sponsored by the SMi Group, Morris said that diversity includes satellites operating in medium Earth orbit (MEO) and low Earth orbit (LEO) as well as in traditional geostationary orbits. Use of different frequencies also is critical, she said.

“What I’m trying to do is put our adversaries on the horns of a dilemma,” Morris said. “You go after our [military-owned] systems, I’ve got something else that I can get to. Historically, with a lot of the weapon systems that are brought to bear in the modern age, it’s not the primary system that has been a hero, it’s the secondary system, because the enemy puts so much effort into taking out that primary system.”

Peter Hoene, president and chief executive of Reston, Va.-based SES Space and Defense, the U.S. government services arm of satellite operator SES, said that just between SES and its top competitors, there are some 150 commercial satellites in geostationary orbit. This gives the military options in case signals from the U.S. Air Force’s workhorse Wideband Global Satcom satellites are jammed, thus complicating the targeting calculus of any adversary, he said.

Another benefit of satellite diversity is that missions vary widely, both among and even within the military services. Certain bandwidths and orbits are better suited to some of these missions than others.

“We have different sized-ships that have different-sized needs and different missions; they all require assured C2 (command and control),” Morris said. “We require diversity in pathways, diversity in orbits, diversity in spectrum, and we need it with a lot of agility because our missions change so often and so quickly.”

Charles Osborn, acting director of the infrastructure directorate at the U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), said his team is designing a next-generation gateway architecture that will pull signals from satellites in all three orbits, along with terrestrial systems, into the Department of Defense Information Network. “From my perspective, those all need to be integrated together for us to have that full redundancy and resiliency that we’re looking for,” he said.

While geostationary orbit – a belt of space 36,000 kilometers above the equator – has traditionally been home to most military and commercial communications satellites, a number of companies are planning large constellations in LEO to provide fiber-quality broadband services on a global scale. While these systems are in most cases years away from full deployment, SES currently operates a 20-satellite MEO constellation dubbed O3b, with a second-generation system under construction. SES also is among the world’s largest geostationary satellite operators, with 55 satellites serving commercial and government customers.

A key advantage of LEO and MEO systems is they eliminate most of the latency, or signal lag, associated with geostationary satellites. The O3b constellation, for example, reduces latency by 75 percent, while increasing throughput, compared to geostationary satellites, supporting applications including backhaul of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data gathered by forces in the field.

SES’s next-generation O3b mPOWER MEO satellites, under construction by Boeing and scheduled to launch in 2021, will offer 5,000 reconfigurable beams per satellite along with anti-jam capabilities geared toward military requirements, Hoene noted.

SES also is working with partners to integrate flat panel, electronically steered, antennas that can switch seamlessly between MEO and geostationary satellites, addressing a longstanding concern about forces having to carry many different terminal types to fully leverage all available military and commercial satellite capabilities. The military also has been investing in multiband terminals, a trend Hoene said bodes well for the future.

Hoene said industry and government are headed down a path that could one day lead to seamless roaming between the various commercial and government-satellites for military customers. “I’m very excited about this; I think these are huge breakthroughs,” he said.

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