Why not satellite? Addressing military C4ISR needs from the sky

Hollywood loves to use the old cliché where an underestimated individual fights to get everyone’s attention because – as the audience is already aware – they have the solution to the big problem that has everyone in danger. That frustrating feeling of having a viable solution – but being cast aside – was probably how many of us in the satellite industry were feeling at last week’s C4ISR Conference.

The C4ISR Conference brought private industry together with the military decision makers responsible for the DoD’s Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR). It featured a number of panel discussions and keynote speeches that featured a mix of representatives from both the private and public sector, and that focused on the IT, cybersecurity and communications challenges facing today’s military.

Two of the main challenges that attendees heard repeated during the course of the activities were:

  • A need for a mobile communications solution that could deliver high throughput connectivity to a location quickly and without military personnel having to plug into existing transoceanic fiber.
  • A need to ensure secure communications in theater, at a time when adversaries are actively working to take away one of the U.S. military’s largest advantages – its communications and real time intelligence capabilities.

The first of these needs was expressed by Lieutenant General Alan R. Lynn, the Director of the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) and Commander of the Joint Force Headquarters- Department of Defense Information Networks (DODIN) out of Fort Meade, Md. Prior to beginning the Q&A portion of his presentation, the General discussed what the military need from its industry partners.

“We need more throughput. The requirement just keeps growing. Every day we have more throughput requirements,” The General told industry partners in attendance. “But there are not bigger pipes being rolled out. So what’s next? What comes after fiber?”

What comes next could very well be satellites. Long perceived as a slower alternative to terrestrial networks and fiber, satellite communications have come a long way thanks to new satellite technologies and innovative new satellite constellations.

“We need more throughput. The requirement just keeps growing. Every day we have more throughput requirements,” Lieutenant General Alan R. Lynn, the Director of DISA and Commander of the Joint Force Headquarters – Department of Defense Information Networks (DODIN).

The Solution to More Throughput

Today, Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and Lower Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite constellations are being launched that drastically reduce latency thanks to their closer proximity to the Earth. These constellations offer fiber-like connectivity and throughputs from space, meaning that they can deliver bandwidth similar to a terrestrial network anywhere within their constellation’s coverage area – and these constellations cover a large portion of the Earth. Furthermore, these satellites can deliver that bandwidth to any location with the requisite satellite terminal and antennas, meaning that a bubble of connectivity can be created, even without connections back to existing fiber networks.

But MEO and LEO constellations aren’t the only solutions that can offer high bandwidth anymore. The next generation of satellites – known in the industry as high throughput satellites (HTS) – is capable of delivering just what its name promises – high bandwidth from geostationary (GEO) orbit. These satellites – which utilize concentrated spot beams to deliver high bandwidth connectivity – are being launched across many satellite providers today, with some already in orbit, and a large number slated to launch in the very near future.

How to Best Operate in a Contested Environment

The second pain point or challenge that we heard mentioned numerous times at the event was the need to ensure communications at the edge, where enemy combatants and adversaries would be looking to deny or degrade them to eliminate our military’s network connectivity and IT capabilities.

There was an overarching sentiment that the military should be prepared to fight in environments where IT solutions and capabilities weren’t available in theater. This was reflected in comments by Rear Adm. Danelle Barrett, Director of the Navy Cyber Security Division in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, during a panel focused on security.

“You’re never going to have an impenetrable network, that is a fool’s errand. You will have the ability to fight through the hurt, and that’s where we focus our effort in the Navy,” Adm. Barrett said. “It’s been clear that we’re not used to operating in a contested environment…so all of our branches are working on this – what does their cyber key terrain look like. Fighting through the hurt, it’s becoming clear that we’re going to have to do that.”

This is another area where satellite could be beneficial. The sheer number of satellites in orbit – between the military’s WGS satellite constellation and commercial communications satellites – delivers the redundancy and resiliency needed to ensure that essential communications aren’t lost in theater. The new generation of high throughput satellites doubles down on the ability to deliver assured communications through the use of harder-to-jam spot beams and other built-in security advancements.

Ultimately, even in a more contested space domain and environment, new technologies could make satellite a more resilient way to deliver fiber-like connectivity to the battlefield. Despite this, satellite seemed like an afterthought for many of the speakers and panelists, many of which were lamenting the same challenges that satellite can help the military overcome.

“Fighting through the hurt, it’s becoming clear that we’re going to have to do that,” Rear Adm. Danelle Barrett, Director of the Navy Cyber Security Division in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.

To understand why the military may be eschewing satellite, we asked Tim Deaver of SES Space and Defense, one of the industry representatives on the conference’s lone satellite-focused panel.

“Satellite has always been essential for the military and an important part of delivering communications to the tip of the spear, but cost and concerns about bandwidth and latency may have some military technology decision makers looking elsewhere,” Deaver explained. “But those concerns really aren’t as viable or relevant today as they have been in the past. High throughput satellites and MEO constellations are offering fiber-like connectivity to practically any location on Earth, and these new technologies are lowering prices and making satellite a much more reasonable, cost-effective solution than ever before.”
Analysis of Alternatives Could Pave the Way Forward

If this past C4ISR Conference was for those in the satellite industry that felt overlooked, there could be some relief on the horizon in the form of the Air Force’s wideband analysis of alternatives – or AoA. As we’ve discussed in the past, the AoA will help the Air Force establish a new path forward for the military when it comes to how it acquires and utilizes satellite services, and the advanced MEO and HTS satellites that are being offered by commercial satellite providers could see their role in military communications increase as a result.

We caught up with Col. George R. Nagy, the Chief of the Space Support to Operations Division within the Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space, following his participation on the space panel and asked him why he felt these new satellite technologies weren’t being mentioned as solutions for the challenges facing today’s military. According to Col. Nagy:

”Those emerging capabilities are being looked at within the wideband AoA. That was part of that space renaissance that I mentioned (during the panel discussion). Non-GEO systems, something that gets us to a heterogeneous architecture – we have that together today with WGS and commercial transponders – but we have many more options to choose from as a lot of those systems come online. And that’s within the study timeframe of the AoA.”

To learn more about the role that today’s advanced SATCOM solutions and services can play in helping the military overcome its communications challenges, click on the following resources:

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