Non-geostationary satellites figure into Army network modernization plans


The U.S. Army is eying low-latency communication services from non-geostationary satellite systems for the next phase of the network modernization program, a senior service official said.

Army Maj. Gen. Peter Gallagher, director of the network cross-functional team for Army Futures Command, said the service is looking for high-capacity network backbone services as part of Capability Set 23, the next technology on-ramp in its incremental modernization strategy.

“And that seems like mid Earth orbit satellite constellations and low Earth orbit satellite constellations, which give us significantly more bandwidth and lower latency, and in some cases, it’s almost like having fiber-optic cable through a space-based satellite link,” Gallagher said during the recent 2020 C4ISRNET conference.

The Army’s network modernization strategy is being carried out in two-year increments, called Capability Sets, through 2028. For each increment, the Army identifies specific technologies for experimentation, the results of which inform equipment-buying decisions.

The first technology infusion, Capability Set 21, primarily features lightweight equipment including tactical radios, commercial 4G technologies, drone-mounted antennas, and satellite terminals. Those technologies are undergoing testing now, although the Army has had to make some schedule adjustments due to the coronavirus outbreak, Gallagher said.

For Capability Set 23, the Army will experiment with emerging technologies that can be applied on a much broader scale to provide a common operating picture of the battlefield. “Some of that is not ready yet, but it is a technology that we are planning to prototype with over the next year … at this time next year we’ll be conducting the preliminary design review of Capability Set 23,” Gallagher said.

Several companies have proposed large constellations of broadband satellites in low Earth orbit, and two of these are in the early stages of deployment. In contrast, SES already operates a 20-satellite broadband constellation in medium Earth orbit called O3b MEO.

The DoD has traditionally relied on communications services from geostationary-orbiting satellites whose high altitude, 36,000 kilometers above the equator, introduces signal transmission delays that can adversely impact certain applications. O3b MEO, whose satellites orbit roughly at 8,000 kilometers, delivers data at fiber-like speeds to anywhere on the globe with minimal latency.

In an article published in October on the Army’s official website, Gallagher hinted at the value of low-latency services. “We wish to determine how [low and medium Earth orbit satellites] will fit into the network backbone design to provide high capacity and low latency throughput, which would enable the Army to leverage cloud and edge computing,” he said.

High latency also imposes limitations on the operation of unpiloted aerial vehicles from U.S.-based control centers, and hinders the military’s response time in a variety of scenarios, including attacks with hypersonic weapons, experts say.

According to Pete Hoene, President & CEO at SES Space and Defense, the latency associated with O3b MEO is nominally 125 milliseconds roundtrip, compared to 500 milliseconds from a geostationary satellite system.

In 2018, the Department of Defense (DoD) signed a Blanket Purchase Agreement with a ceiling of $516.7 million with SES Space and Defense for access to O3b MEO services through April 2023. This contract follows several previous DoD contracts for O3b MEO services, including a 2016 arrangement that enabled U.S. forces to rapidly backhaul large files of battlefield intelligence information to exploitation centers.

The capability of SES’s medium Earth orbit constellation will increase significantly in 2022 when their next-generation O3b mPOWER satellites become operational. Each O3b mPOWER satellite will provide high throughput, low-latency connectivity through shapeable and dynamically reconfigurable beams that can support an array of applications including data-intensive ISR missions or comms-on-the-move applications.

“O3b MEO capabilities have already proven to be a tried and trusted tool for the U.S. military,” said Hoene. “Our next-generation O3b mPOWER constellation will include an order of magnitude improvement in number of beams and throughput, making them ideal candidates to satisfy US Government high throughput, low latency requirements. It’s a connectivity solution designed to adapt to the needs of our warfighters’ missions and keep our troops connected to the intelligence they need at the tactical edge.”

According to Gallagher, the Army already is working with prospective Capability Set 23 technology providers.  The service held a technical interchange in November that attracted 672 participants, which was followed by a call for white papers that helped narrow down the field of technologies, he said.

“We conducted a shark tank in March and we’re working through the statements of work right now with some of the vendors that have been selected,” Gallagher said. “…Hopefully, we’ll have all those contracts let no later than July.”

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