The role of next-gen satellite in powering the Air Force’s ABMS Program

SES Space and Defense recently announced that the company was selected to enable the U.S Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS). The ABMS program will keep troops connected to ensure that warfighters have up-to-date, accurate information, and access to critical systems as they move into the most advanced, forward positions. SES satellites will enable the proliferation of that capability across platforms and domains for Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2).

As the military increasingly relies on data and network-enabled platforms and systems for deployed warfighters, having communication systems that are flexible and assured is essential. And, as the number and quality of sensors increases in the field, greater bandwidth becomes incredibly important.

To learn more about how a new generation of high-throughput satellite can help to meet the bandwidth and connectivity requirements of the military – and the ABMS program – we sat down with Jim Hooper, SES Space and Defense’ Chief Commercial Officer and a Corporate Vice President. During our conversation, we asked Jim why ABMS is so critical to our future forces, why low-latency, high-throughput connectivity from satellites in MEO orbit are an important part of meeting military connectivity requirements, and the innovation that this new relationship between the Air Force and SES will bring to bear for the warfighter.

Here is what he had to say:

Government Satellite Report (GSR):  What is the ABMS? Is this something completely new, or is it replacing an existing system or systems within the Air Force and DoD?

Jim Hooper:  ABMS is a new program, but it is designed to address a long-standing and enduring requirement – delivering advanced and interoperable battle management and C2 capabilities to the U.S. military.

One of the things that is exciting about ABMS is that it reflects a mindset of accelerating the adoption of new technologies and capabilities into the Air Force, which includes exploiting advanced commercial systems and technologies, and extend that across the Department of Defense (DoD) at large.

Oftentimes, DoD procurements take many years. ABMS is all about collapsing acquisition timelines with rapid testing of technologies for rapid adoption and fielding. This is particularly important given that commercial technologies are evolving very quickly in areas like satellite communications and cloud capabilities.

GSR:  Why is the ABMS important today? What has changed in how we conduct operations and fight battles that makes this necessary?

Jim Hooper:  The concept of rapid testing and fielding of new capabilities has always existed within DoD. But for the past two decades, there has been a focus on counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and stability operations missions.

As the U.S. defense strategy has evolved to address the challenge of near-peer threats, programs like ABMS are helping posture the U.S. military and our allies for the demands of the future.

ABMS is enabled by the US Space Force’s Fighting SATCOM Concept and Enterprise SATCOM Architecture.  In turn, ABMS enable the Joint Warfighting Concept (JWC) for all-domain operations, improving interoperability and enabling capabilities from all the services to operate simultaneously, effectively, and with the unity of effort in air, land, sea, space, cyber, and the electromagnetic spectrum.

GSR:  Why is satellite an essential part of the ABMS? What role will satellite play in making this system function and operate optimally?

Jim Hooper:  A core tenant of ABMS is that every platform is potentially a sensor and can be tied to each other to help provide a greater picture of the battlespace. Drawn to its logical conclusion, that extends to every aircraft, every ship, ground vehicles, dismounted soldiers, unattended sites, etc.  There are several short-range communications links that will help tie all these platforms together, but in aggregate they will be deployed over such large distances where satellite communications (SATCOM) are necessary.

SATCOM solutions will connect the remote platforms to provide critical data to centralized processing and cloud processing centers, as well as back out to field headquarters and areas of engagement to act on that information. SATCOM will distribute vital C2 and targeting information to remote sites, at the same time as headquarters sites, allowing parallel and simultaneous process.

GSR:  As part of the recent announcement that SES has been chosen to provide satellite services for the ABMS, the company’s multidomain satellite constellations were touted. Why is having satellites in multiple domains important for this system? What resiliency and mission assurance benefits does this deliver?

Jim Hooper:  For military requirements, a multi-domain solution is always preferred over a single solution, particularly given that a military network is only as strong as its weakest link. Of course, potential adversaries continue to adapt and field their own new capabilities, so the situation also changes over time. If all the communications links are reliant on one satellite – or one satellite network – that may suffice for a large part of the time. But if that link or that constellation becomes unavailable or overloaded for whatever reason, backups or alternates are immediately required.

Most communications links already have built-in backup and redundancy links so this is nothing new. What is unique about the SES’ capabilities is that we have global SATCOM solutions in multiple frequency bands (Ku-, Ka-, C, and X-band) and multiple orbits with our geostationary (GEO) and medium earth orbit (MEO) constellations.

Our networks are open architecture and multi-domain by design. This provides resiliency and redundancy for vital communications links. It also provides much higher data rate surge and expanded geographic coverage capabilities that might not exist with other systems.

Also of critical importance, SES is at the forefront of deploying new satellite technologies and systems. Building upon the existing GEO and MEO capabilities currently supporting DoD missions today, SES will next launch an advanced MEO constellation in 2021 called O3b mPOWER with advanced capabilities that are directly relevant to U.S. Air Force, DoD, and coalition/allied requirements.

The ABMS program provides a tailor-made mechanism to experiment with both current and future SATCOM capabilities and identifying the most promising capabilities for rapid integration into the DoD.

GSR:  What about the ability to utilize MEO satellite services? Is low-latency, high-bandwidth connectivity necessary for this system? Why or why not?

Jim Hooper:  MEO (Medium Earth Orbit) satellites are very unique and SES operates the world’s only broadband MEO satellite constellation. MEO essentially has the best of both worlds when talking about LEO (Low Earth Orbit) and traditional GEO satellite networks. MEO satellites have much less latency than GEO satellites, which is critical to real-time cloud computing, Artificial Intelligence (AI) analyses, and targeting information.

“One of the things that is exciting about ABMS is that it reflects a mindset of accelerating the adoption of new technologies and capabilities into the Air Force, which includes exploiting advanced commercial systems and technologies…” – Jim Hooper

The use of many steerable spot beams on the MEO satellites also provides very focused coverage areas for increased anti-jam resiliency, and the MEO satellites are moving which also increases the jamming sophistication needed vs. GEO. MEO beams also typically have much higher performance.

MEO performance allows much higher data rates for rapidly evolving modern ISR sensors and platforms with multiple sensors. It also enables more users in a beam area, or higher capacity-density, than would be typically available on a GEO satellite. This capacity density is critical to warfighters and their C2.

GSR:  Once the ABMS is launched, what will the battlefield of the future look like? How will sensors, warfighters, and satellites converge to make our soldiers more effective?

Jim Hooper:  Satellite communications are evolving rapidly and the capabilities for the end-user are evolving just as rapidly. A good analogy is provided by cellular phones, and how that technology has evolved over the last 10-20 years.

Cellular started where we all just made a telephone call. Then capabilities improved a little bit to add texting, which was widely adopted by users. Then we could use our cell phones to send emails and attachments and people changed their behavior to depend on cell systems for work and personal information sharing. Then technology jumped to passing video over cellular devices and now it’s all about apps. There are more people using apps on phones than talking on phones, which is where it all started.

In a similar manner, the satellite industry is rapidly creating technologies that will deliver “apps” in much the same ways. It’s not just about broadcast or point-to-point connectivity in remote areas. It’s about ubiquitous coverage and “apps” capabilities to millions of users. The convergence of these technologies will enable new military CONOPS, tactics, techniques, and procedures in the future, many of which can’t be fully envisioned today.

SES Space and Defense is a leader in delivering advanced C2 capabilities to the U.S. military today, and with programs like ABMS, we can continue bringing the latest technologies and systems to U.S. military end-users.

For additional information on how SES is supporting the Air Force ABMS program CLICK HERE.

Featured image courtesy of U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Daniel Garcia.

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