In my last post on the Government Satellite Report, I talked about the recent Association of the United States Army (AUSA) meeting and conference, and some of the major announcements that surfaced during the panel discussions, addresses and speeches at the event. One of the most newsworthy and headline-grabbing was the announcement of a new acquisition pilot program designed to make Army acquisition faster, more effective and more efficient. I talked about that at great length in my last article.
The other major announcement from the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. was that the Army was canceling the WIN-T Increment 2 program and exploring new network options. This could have both positive and negative implications for the Army as it prepared for more advanced adversaries and works to ensure mission assurance for communications systems in the future. The negative implications could arise from the Army’s apparent attempt to reduce dependency on satellite communications – which were the backbone of WIN-T.
But before we talk about the ramifications, let’s discuss the reasoning for a proposed reduction in satellite usage.
More advanced adversaries means more competition in space
It has been a recurring theme across the entire Department of Defense (DoD) for the past few years – space is no longer the ultimate high ground for the United States military. In the past, the U.S. had space capabilities and satellites as a unique differentiator – providing a distinct tactical advantage and edge over our adversaries. That was certainly the case in the country’s recent wars, where our adversaries had no space capabilities to speak of.
But that’s changed significantly over the course of the last decade. Our largest, most advanced adversaries have proven that they can negate our satellite communications and effectively eliminate our tactical advantage from space. They’ve done this with jamming. They’ve done it with kinetic attacks on satellites as well as through intercepting communications.
The Army – and the rest of the DoD – wants mission assurance and readiness. They want to be guaranteed that their networks are ready should threats arise from these larger, more advanced adversaries – and the steps forward that they’ve taken in space causes concern for the DoD.
This concern is compounded by the trends in IT and technology in warfighting. Every new platform being built, evaluated and implemented across the DoD is network-enabled in some way. This was exemplified by General David Goldfein, the Air Force Chief of Staff, at the recent Air Force Association (AFA) Air, Space and Cyber Conference 2017, who repeatedly asked, “Does it connect? Good. Does it share? Even better,” when discussing the next generation of Air Force innovations.
With every platform being network enabled and with an increasing reliance on IT at the tip of the spear, it’s understandable that the Army wants to take steps to ensure that the capabilities that IT affords are always available to the warfighter. Our increasingly sophisticated adversaries put the resiliency of the satellite networks in question.
More advanced satellites means it doesn’t matter
In my last post, I discussed how the DoD’s acquisition processes don’t always move fast enough to ensure that they’re getting the latest technologies, because technology advances so quickly. Something similar is true in satellites.
Satellite technologies have advanced significantly in the past few years – especially among the commercial satellite providers that are constantly refreshing their constellations by building, launching, and bringing new satellites on-line. Today’s SATCOM providers are launching and operating a new generation of High Throughput Satellites (HTS) that not only deliver higher amounts of bandwidth and higher throughputs, but are also less susceptible to jamming. They’re also operating new constellations in different orbits – including LEO and MEO orbits – that can have a huge impact on resiliency.
Instead of looking for alternatives for SATCOM, the Army should be analyzing new satellite technologies and solutions available via commercial SATCOM providers that can help deliver a higher level of resiliency and redundancy in space, and better ensure that IT-fueled capabilities are always available to the warfighter.
Take HTS as an example. The smaller spot beams utilized by HTS satellites make it significantly harder for them to be jammed, since satellite jamming needs to originate within the beam. Couple that with new, protected waveforms being developed and implemented by SATCOM providers, and HTS satellites can deliver far more resiliency in space than previous generations of satellites.
Increased resiliency is possible via the use of MEO and LEO satellite constellations. By disaggregating satellite signals across multiple satellites and orbits, the Army can gain resiliency. In this situation, the adversary simply doesn’t know which satellite to attack, and wouldn’t be able to negate satellite-enabled capabilities even if they did attack one of the correct satellites, since there would be redundancy baked in.
The increased resiliency of these next generation satellite solutions – in tandem with the incredible bandwidth they can deliver to practically anywhere on the planet – makes it clear that satellite should still be the future for the Army. Especially when you consider the alternatives.
Analyzing the alternatives
If satellite isn’t the answer for the Army, what is?
One of the alternatives – tropospheric scatter (TROPO) – involves reflecting – or bouncing – signals off of the troposphere. TROPO is already in use and has been proven as a viable alternative in satellite denied environments. But can it be an alternative to satellite altogether? The answer is undoubtedly, “no.”
TROPO has restrictions and issues that you simply don’t experience with satellite networks. First, it needs a complicated setup process for each new geographic area in which it will be located – eliminating the potential to do comms on the move. In contrast, satellite networks simply require the antenna being pointed in the optimal direction. Also, TROPO can be drastically impacted by weather and other factors. Combined, these restrictions make it an attractive solution as a backup for satellite networks, but in no way an alternative for them.
Another concept that’s been floated by the military has been the use of UAS platforms to deliver signals. This creates the same issues with resiliency – if not more issues – since a UAS flies low enough to be much more easily targeted by adversaries. Although they’re relatively cost effective and could be deployed in large numbers, they could be easily negated by kinetic attacks from adversaries, making them a less reliable and resilient option.
It’s both judicious and sensible that the Army wants to embrace new solutions that would provide mission assurance for their advanced warfighting technologies and IT. But the alternatives to satellite that they could be exploring are all lacking in some way, and could effectively be less resilient and effective for the Army when they need them most. The advanced satellite solutions available today – and coming online in the very near future – are the best alternative for the Army as it reevaluates and reconsiders the future of its networks.
For additional information on HTS and MEO satellites and their uses for federal government and military operations, download the following resources: