Discussions at MilSatCom USA show low-latency satellite systems growing on U.S. military

The data-intensive nature and fast pace of modern warfare are increasing U.S. military demand for services from low-orbiting satellites that can relay information more quickly than those in high orbits, according to senior officers and industry officials at the recent MilSatCom USA conference.

Far flung military forces rely heavily on remote data processing capabilities that are highly sensitive to transmission delays, or latency, associated with communications satellites in geostationary orbit, some 36,000 kilometers above the equator, these experts said. Satellites in lower orbits do not have the same latency issues, making them better suited to support certain data-intensive military operations.

Speaking at MilSatCom USA, which was organized by the SMi Group of London, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Peter Gallagher, currently director of architecture, operations, networks and space in the office of the Army’s Chief Information Officer, served up a real-world example to illustrate the trend.

In 2016, U.S. forces operating on the ground against Islamic State fighters in Syria captured what Gallagher characterized as “treasure troves” of battlefield intelligence that would enable them to strike the enemy even harder.

“The problem was [that] the pipes were not there to get that [information] back to do the exploitation necessary to help the special operators on the ground continue to take the fight to the enemy,” Gallagher said. “So, we had to find a creative solution.”

Installing terrestrial fiber links was not an option, said Gallagher, who at the time was a senior information officer assigned to U.S. Central Command. So the Army turned to the commercial satellite sector, in particular, they leveraged a constellation of broadband satellites in Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) to provide the necessary connectivity at about 60% of the cost of GEO backhaul.

“It required a lot of engineering, a tail circuit and a whole lot of creative planning but ultimately our intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capability was enhanced by an innovative partnership between the CENTCOM team and industry,” Gallagher said. “And we solved the problem.”

Gallagher did not name the constellation, but there is only one that fits the description: SES’ O3b MEO satellites providing fiber-quality broadband links in the low to mid-latitude regions of the world. The constellation is wholly owned by SES, one of the world’s largest operators of communications satellites.

Commercial geostationary satellites are of course a critical complement to the military’s own systems in keeping the U.S. military forces connected. It is well known, for example, that in the early days of the U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, up to 80 percent of the supporting satellite bandwidth was commercially provided.

MEO satellite constellations, such as O3b – which began commercial service in 2014, represent a new capability that Gallagher said is increasingly in high demand: low-latency, high-capacity throughput. Geostationary satellites can have high capacity but are saddled with the latency issue, while current LEO systems lack the capacity to quickly move large amounts of data.

U.S. Marine Corps. Col. Curtis Carlin, of the J6 Operations Division at CENTCOM, displayed a chart during his conference presentation that said low-latency, as an attribute, is becoming almost as important as capacity for military customers. The reason is the military’s increasing reliance on what he characterized as enterprise services, an information technology term that typically refers to the integration of multiple software packages into a single platform that can be broadly applied across an organization to support its mission.

Skyrocketing data requirements among forces deployed in places like Afghanistan and Iraq that lack usable terrestrial infrastructure are driving the requirement for lower-latency systems operating in LEO and MEO, Carlin said.

This could be a boon to MEO satellite operators, as well as companies like OneWeb, which plan to deploy huge constellations of LEO broadband satellites in the coming years.

Carlin said the Marines rely heavily on intelligence information processed on servers at locations far removed from the battlefield, such as at service headquarters in Quantico, Va., or CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Fla. This processed information must be transmitted back to forces quickly enough for them to act before the situation on the ground changes, putting a premium on low latency, he explained.

Such “reachback” capabilities relieve U.S. forces of having to lug data servers into the field with them, but drive up demand for low-latency, high-throughput satellite connectivity, industry officials said. Modern web-based applications are generally intolerant of latency, one industry official said.

As Gallagher put it, in relating how MEO satellites came to the rescue in 2016, “there are a lot more of those requirements brewing.”

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