Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel with the rest of the SES Space and Defense team to San Diego for the annual AFCEA West Conference.
As in previous years, this year’s AFCEA West brought together senior military decision makers and private industry leaders to talk about their largest technology and communications challenges and discuss the latest innovations and technology trends that can help the military accomplish its missions. Also, much like in previous years, this year’s AFCEA West was heavily attended by the U.S. Navy, with a large focus on the USINDOPACOM Area of Responsibility (AoR) – which makes sense considering the event’s physical location.
What was different – and rather surprising – about this year’s event was the overarching topics of discussion. Unlike in years past, fewer of the discussions that I had with military leaders focused on the logistical and geographic challenges that the USINDOPACOM AoR poses to the Navy – a topic that has been covered extensively on the Government Satellite Report by some of my associates. Instead, they talked extensively about two different topics – the requirements being put on the Navy due to cloud initiatives and implementations and the cybersecurity concerns facing military communications.
Let’s take a look at each of those things individually, and then talk about some of the ways that we feel satellite can help.
Navy looks to go “cloud first”
The scalability, flexibility and cost savings that often result from cloud implementations have driven many top-down “cloud first” initiatives across the federal government. Until recently, a myriad of concerns and challenges – including security concerns – had put the Department of Defense (DoD) and military entities behind many civilian federal agencies in cloud adoption.
However, following the recent release of the DoD Cloud Strategy, the military has accelerated their movement to the cloud. This was reinforced during AFCEA West by Rear Admiral Danelle Barrett, who gave a presentation on how the Navy Cyber Security Division (N2N6G) has been running pilot programs to identify how to best utilize the cloud.
With military systems and applications moving to the cloud, the need for connectivity at the edge increases dramatically. Also, since all data and applications will be hosted in the cloud and some of those files will be very large, the connections available to the warfighter need to offer high bandwidth and low latency to ensure operations on par with terrestrial networks.
Also, with mission-critical applications and information being accessed via the cloud, the need for assured communications and secure communications becomes increasingly important.
The need for mission assurance and security
The military increasingly relies on network-connected devices, platforms and vehicles in-theater, network connectivity becomes essential to the mission. As Rear Adm. Boris Becker, Commander of the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, said during a panel discussion at AFCEA West, “It’s information in warfare and information as warfare.”
Regardless of where the warfighter is operating, connectivity needs high availability and also needs to be resilient against attack.
Our enemies understand the advantage that our military gains through IT systems and applications. They also know the role that satellite plays in enabling those IT systems and applications. It behooves our adversaries to aggressively work to deny satellite capabilities to our warfighters.
As Marine Corps Commandant, Gen. Robert Neller, responded during a session at AFCEA West, “We’re at war right now in cyberspace. We’ve been at war for maybe a decade.”
Unfortunately, our increasingly sophisticated adversaries – especially those in the USINDOPACOM AoR – are becoming extremely capable and adept at denying satellite connectivity. Our adversaries – especially China and Russia – have shown that they are capable of denying satellite connectivity a number of ways. From direct kinetic attacks on satellites themselves, to simply jamming satellite signals, satellite connections are becoming more susceptible to attack at a time when they’re becoming more important than ever.
Luckily, commercial satellite solutions that are available today could help the military overcome their bandwidth, latency and mission assurance issues.
MEO delivers secure high-throughput connectivity
As we’ve established, the military is going all in on bandwidth-hogging applications and systems in the cloud, and network-enabling many of their devices and platforms. Coupled with their cloud initiatives, this is driving massive need for bandwidth at the edge.
Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellite constellations are capable of delivering that high-throughput, high-bandwidth connectivity. Utilizing satellites that are half the distance to the Earth than geostationary (GEO) satellites, MEO constellations bring fiber-like connectivity to the military without the usual latency that impacts GEO satellite services. This means that even cloud applications can operate in the field via satellite with the same level of responsiveness and performance as they would over terrestrial networks.
Then there’s the issue of security and mission assurance. With missions increasingly relying on network-enabled devices, applications and platforms, mission success is increasingly tied to network availability. This is also an area where commercially-operated MEO satellite constellations can help.
It’s well established that distributing military communications through commercial satellite networks can help increase mission assurance by simply making it harder to find and negate the satellite carrying them. But, MEO satellites come with additional mission assurance capabilities baked-in.
To jam satellite signals, an adversary has to physically be located within the satellite beam. The spot beams being utilized by HTS MEO satellites are physically smaller, forcing any would-be satellite jammer to be uncomfortably close to opposing military forces. The very nature of the steerable spotbeams on MEO satellites also makes it possible to direct additional beams or replacement beams to fill in for ones that have been denied or compromised.
If AFCEA West showed us anything, it’s that the Navy – as well as the rest of the military – is doubling down on network-centric operations and increasingly moving into the cloud. While this will ultimately unlock incredible capabilities and benefits to the warfighter, it also creates connectivity and security challenges. However, by partnering with industry and utilizing the advanced satellite services available to them – including today’s MEO satellite constellations – the DoD can overcome these challenges and ensure that the warfighter always has access to what they need.