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Connectivity in the cold – SATCOM for Arctic Circle operations

America’s military is facing more advanced threats – near-peer adversaries – in China and Russia. This has forced them to not only gear up for potential military action against highly capable adversaries, it also requires that the Department of Defense (DoD) pays attention to parts of the globe that may have previously been an afterthought. The most notable of which is the Arctic Circle.

Simply looking at a map is enough to see why the Arctic is so important, strategically, for our military. The U.S. and its largest ally, Canada, are amazingly close to what is essentially our largest, near-peer adversary.

A capable homeland defense, in the polar area of responsibility, is fundamental to the nation’s ability to conduct global operations.  Looking at that map makes it abundantly clear that any military defense of our nation from Russia needs to take the Arctic Circle into account. It’s an attack vector that simply can’t be ignored.

Simply looking at a map is enough to see why the Arctic is so important, strategically, for our military.

This is a reality that’s made even more important by the fact that, as Voice of America reports, Russia is investing heavily in its presence in the Arctic region:

“Russia has made reaffirming its presence in the Arctic a top goal, revamping the military Arctic outpost of Severny Klever along the Arctic shipping route. Missile launchers ply icy roads and air defense systems point menacingly into the sky at this Arctic military outpost, a key vantage point for Russia to project its power over the resource-rich polar region.”

But it’s not just about protection from Russia and proximity to an adversary. As global climate change continues to melt arctic ice and open up new northern trade routes, it becomes increasingly important to protect them and America’s economic interests.

All of these factors, combined, are what led U.S. Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, who leads U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), to claim that, “The Arctic is the first line of defense,” at last year’s Sea Air Space 2019 Conference.  After all, the General is responsible for mitigating threats and serves as the primary defender of the homeland.

The need to increase operations and preparedness in the Arctic Circle is clear, but what does that mean, and what will the military need to make that a reality?

Something old and something new
To prepare for a threat to trade or national security that originates or flows through the Arctic Circle, there are a number of things that the military needs to invest in. The first would be a port or military base to counter the Russian Severny Klever base. Congress has already authorized the DoD to begin the process of establishing at least one Arctic port in which to station Navy and Coast Guard vessels.

Next would be the construction of new heavy ice breakers, whose ability to navigate through icy and frozen waters is necessary for operations in the far north. There are currently only two ice breakers in the country’s arsenal, but the first new ice breakers built since the 1970s are on their way – although they’re not slated to be available for a few years.

Further research of the Arctic Circle and the impact the harsh environment will have on our operations is also required.  The extreme conditions will present the warfighter with new and unique challenges.

Preparing for a threat to national security from the Arctic Circle will require the first new ice breakers to be built since the 1970s. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Daniel R. Michelson)

Finally, there’s the need for innovation. Sometimes this means finding innovative uses for old school tools to enable success – such as deploying warfighters with baseball bats to be used in the clearing of ice. And sometimes that means utilizing new tools to enable advanced technologies – such as the use of high-throughput, low latency satellite for high bandwidth applications.

Connectivity in the cold
Today’s military is increasingly reliant on network-connected platforms and weapons systems. They utilize advanced IT capabilities and applications to enable their operations. While the military always prepares to operate in network-denied environments and conditions, there is no denying that these tools provide a strategic edge for the warfighter.

It is clear that USNORTHCOM and NORAD have taken aggressive steps to improve homeland defense.  This includes clearly prioritizing polar communications, as a strategic imperative, that will enable key U.S. capabilities needed to outperform adversarial threats the nation faces.

Unfortunately, both ships at sea and in remote locations suffer from a similar problem – a lack of terrestrial networks. The problem is compounded for ships at sea operating in some of the world’s harshest and most remote locations – which includes the Arctic Circle.

However, governments in far northern geographies and in incredibly remote locations have been relying on satellite communications to meet their connectivity requirements for years.

Kativik, Quebec, Canada has long relied on SES satellites for, “…critical C-band communications capability… [that] enables important connectivity for schools, hospitals, government buildings, and other important facilities.” Where, exactly, is Kativik? If you were looking at a map of Canada, placed your finger on Quebec City and began to slide your finger north – passed where the roads ended and up to where the land juts out between the Hudson Strait and Hudson Bay – you’d find yourself pointing at Kativik, Quebec, Canada.

And while Kativik is incredibly remote, it’s not alone in its use of SATCOM for connectivity in the far north.

The rural Alaskan city of Unalaska is just one of the remote, geographically-isolated places where satellite communications are delivering essential connectivity.

The OptimERA Internet Service Provider (ISP), which serves the rural Alaskan city of Unalaska, recently partnered with SES to give, “Residents, businesses, schools, healthcare clinics and other organizations in parts of Alaska…access [to] city-wide WiFi and broadband services.” This partnership was announced during the COVID-19 pandemic, when stay-at-home orders stressed local networks and communications infrastructure.

Finally, SATCOM is being used by the European Maritime Safety Agency’s (EMSA) Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) to, “…support the country’s requirements for environmental protection and fisheries control,” in important areas of the Icelandic Exclusive Economic Zone.

All of these areas are remote, geographically-isolated and located in the far north, and they’re all getting access to essential connectivity and IT services through SATCOM. More excitingly, they may soon have another, more powerful tool available to them.

The need for more capacity and dynamic connectivity will only grow as the U.S. military expands its operations in the Arctic Circle. To address this demand, SES and their subsidiary, SES Government Solutions, are exploring inclined orbits for their Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) constellations that would complement their GEO satellites currently serving the region.

The additional satellites would potentially join the O3b mPOWER fleet at a plane that would allow the polar regions continuous high throughput, low-latency connectivity – delivering fiber-like access to support even the most advanced, bandwidth-hungry applications.

Aggressively leveraging innovation and advancements in the commercial SATCOM sector, particularly investments in the MEO regime, is essential to establishing a resilient communications architecture in support of DoD and COCOM polar region operations.

There are a number of things the DoD is going to need to do and invest in to prepare for having an increased presence and defense in the Arctic Circle. They’re going to have to invest in a new port. They’re going to need new Navy and Coast Guard vessels capable of handling the conditions. They’re going to have to train a new generation of warfighter that has never operated in such harsh environments. Most importantly, they’re going to need to find a way to deliver the data and network connectivity necessary for their advanced network-enabled platforms and weapons systems.

Luckily, SATCOM is already connecting and enabling governments in the far north, and commercial SATCOM providers are prepared to meet these new Arctic DoD requirements with innovative, high-throughput capabilities.

(Featured image: The Coast Guard Cutter Polar Star by Chief Petty Officer David Mosley)

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