In December of last year, Congress passed its National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2022. This annual piece of legislation serves to establish the priorities for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) for the coming year and provides the funding necessary for the military to meet its mission objectives.
It’s not unusual for the NDAA to feature a number of different directives and requests for the DoD and the disparate military services. They may be asked to research ways to increase readiness. Or they may be directed to identify new ways to deliver mental or physical wellness services to enlisted service members.
But this year’s NDAA had a very specific and somewhat unusual request related to satellite communications:
“Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Secretaries of the military departments and the heads of the Defense Agencies, shall submit to the congressional defense committees a report on current commercial satellite communication initiatives, including with respect to new non-geostationary orbit satellite technologies that the Department of Defense has employed to increase satellite communication throughput to existing platforms of the military departments currently constrained by legacy capabilities.”
What are non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) commercial satellite services? They’re effectively any satellite communications service that are delivered via a satellite constellation that exists in an orbit closer to the Earth than geostationary orbit (GEO). And why is Congress so interested in NGSO satellite communications and its use by the DoD? There are a few good reasons for that.
The case for NGSO satellite
To truly oversimplify the operation of satellite networks, satellite communications function by a signal being sent into space, where it’s relayed by a satellite in orbit back to a physical location on Earth. The further the satellite is from Earth, the further that signal needs to travel – both in its initial journey to the satellite, and then in its return journey back to the Earth. The time that it takes to complete that journey is experienced by users as latency.
“Assurance is important when tools like satellite connectivity are mission-critical. The military needs to understand the risk that their satellite services face both on Earth and in space, and choose the solutions that will be available when they need them.”
By putting satellites in orbits closer to the Earth than GEO, commercial satellite providers have dramatically reduced the latency of satellite communications. When coupled with the next generation of high throughput satellite technologies, these satellites closer to Earth are capable of delivering incredibly high throughputs with incredibly low latency. This effectively results in a user experience not unlike a terrestrial fiberoptic network. But, unlike terrestrial networks, these NGSO satellite solutions are available practically anywhere on Earth – even in the most austere and geographically isolated of locations.
With the potential to deliver fiber-like connectivity to anywhere – from a military forward operating base in the middle of the desert, to a naval vessel afloat in the middle of the Pacific – it’s easy to see why Congress would be interested in the DoD investing in NGSO commercial satellite services. The use cases are almost limitless – ranging from traditional military operations, like intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), to the downright futurist, like delivering telemedicine services via video teleconference.
But “NGSO” is a relatively broad term that includes a number of different satellite constellations in orbits outside of GEO. There is a veritable alphabet soup of other orbits, including Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and Lower Earth Orbit (LEO) where commercial SATCOM providers are operating constellations. As a result, there are a number of disparate satellite operators to choose from, and a wide variety of services to choose between.
Which NGSO satellite solution is the right one?
While NGSO satellite can deliver the connectivity that the military needs in an age where practically every platform and weapons system is network and software-enabled, there could be some confusion as to which NGSO satellite service meets the needs of the DoD. And that choice will only get harder, as a number of new satellite services are set to launch in the next half-decade.
Here are three considerations that DoD decision-makers should keep in mind as they evaluate NGSO satellite services and solutions to ensure they get one that will meet mission requirements:
Is it secure?
When Internet and other critical communications services were denied at the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a LEO satellite solution was rapidly made available to restore communications. Seemingly within hours, that LEO satellite service was degraded and denied, once again leaving the people of Ukraine without access to critical comms.
The provider of those services was heralded for its ability to quickly push updates to terminals and get that satellite service back online. But is that really what the military wants and needs?
As we discussed, today’s weapons systems and platforms work best when network enabled. The advanced AR, IoT, and other technology systems that the DoD is investing in for use on the battlefield are ultimately useless if they’re not connected. If today’s warfighters are trained on these systems, and are more effective with these capabilities, the military can’t have them denied – even if only temporarily.
“With the potential to deliver fiber-like connectivity to anywhere – from a military forward operating base in the middle of the desert, to a naval vessel afloat in the middle of the Pacific – it’s easy to see why Congress would be interested in the DoD investing in NGSO commercial satellite services.”
With the security of satellite communications so essential, the military should be looking for NGSO satellite solutions that have been cyber-hardened against the most pressing threats identified by the Office of Director of National Intelligence Space Threat Assessment. They should be looking for solutions that complicate an adversary’s targeting calculus by having no permanent paired linkage between U/L and D/L frequencies and polarities.
They should be looking for solutions that can quickly and easily adjust should attempts be made to jam or deny satellite service. For example, can a satellite solution rapidly adjust frequencies, polarities, power levels, bandwidth, handover timing, and beam location to avoid interference? And is there a GEO system available that can provide wide-area satellite capacity should the NGSO solution be denied?
Is it assured?
Not all of the threats to satellites are cyber and jamming threats. Sometimes there are threats to satellite communications that originate in orbit with the satellites. This includes the threat of interference and collision with other satellites in their orbit.
While GEO has traditionally been the home to most of the communications satellites in use throughout history, LEO is not exactly greenfield real estate. As of September 2021, there were 7,500 satellites in LEO. Compare that to the more than 550 satellites in GEO, and the approximately 140 satellites in MEO. Suddenly that orbit starts to sound incredibly congested. And that’s only going to get worse.
As smallsats and cubesats continue to become less expensive to purchase, and cheaper to launch, the number of them in LEO will increase exponentially. LEO is also considered by many to be the forerunner for the next generation of positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) satellites.
But, most importantly, since LEO satellites have an incredibly small Earth view, many satellites are needed in a LEO constellation to blanket the Earth in coverage. With numerous companies in a race to build LEO constellations with global coverage, LEO could see the addition of hundreds of new communications satellites in orbit just in the next few years.
Assurance is important when tools like satellite connectivity are mission-critical. The military needs to understand the risk that their satellite services face both on Earth and in space, and choose the solutions that will be available when they need them.
How much throughput is needed?
Satellite communications from GEO will play a role for the military into the future. It’s the most effective solution for covering a broad area in connectivity. NGSO satellite solutions will most likely play a more specialized role – providing incredibly high throughputs with miniscule latency for bandwidth-hungry modern IT solutions in the field.
“The advanced AR, IoT and other technology systems that the DoD is investing in for use in the battlefield are ultimately useless if they’re not connected. If today’s warfighters are trained on these systems, and are more effective with these capabilities, the military can’t have them denied – even if only temporarily.”
If the military needs to stream multiple, HD-quality ISR video streams from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or F-35s back to the military decision-makers that need the intelligence to make informed decisions, NGSO satellite is essential. Suppose the military wants to enable fiber-like connectivity for telehealth, or morale, welfare, and recreation (MWR) capabilities onboard a Naval vessel in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In that case, NGSO satellite is the correct choice.
But different NGSO satellite solutions offer different levels of capacity and bandwidth. If a large amount of bandwidth is needed, the DoD should be looking for a solution that can deliver multiple GBPS to each individual terminal – which should be more than enough capacity for even the most bandwidth-hungry of applications.
Considering the importance of fiber-like connectivity for the next generation of military platforms and weapons systems, it’s easy to understand why Congress specifically asked for a report on the military’s use of NGSO commercial satellite services in the most recent NDAA. But, if the DoD is going to begin to increase its reliance on NGSO solutions, it needs to ensure it’s choosing the right offering for its requirements. Security, assurance, and throughputs are just three of the many considerations they should keep in mind when evaluating solutions, but they’re quite possibly three of the most essential.
To learn more about how NGSO satellite services from MEO can deliver advanced capabilities to the warfighter, click HERE to download a complimentary copy of the whitepaper, “A New Era of Connectivity.”
Featured image: U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Cameron J. Rider establishes satellite communication with the combat operations center. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Pfc. Ulises Salgado). The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.