ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND (APG), Maryland – For well over a year now, the Army has been working closely with several commercial vendors through streamlined cooperative research and development agreements, known as CRADAs, to better understand the capabilities and limitations of emerging commercial satellite constellations in multiple Earth orbits, as well as the services and ground terminals needed to access them.
With new commercial Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) constellations, ground terminals and services in various stages of maturity, as well as protected high-throughput enhancements being made to Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) military capabilities, the Army is carefully laying a strong foundation to enable the secure integration of the right solutions into its tactical network design at the right time and cost.
To do this, current experimentation and development efforts are informing future decisions on how these emerging satellite communications (SATCOM) capabilities could best fit into the Army’s incremental two-year Capability Set (CS) network modernization design goals.
“Leveraging emerging satellite technologies in multiple orbits will give us that needed resiliency, huge bandwidth increase and lower latency to enable multi-domain operations in congested and contested environments against increasingly powerful adversaries,” said Richard Greel, technical management division future systems-of-systems engineering lead at the Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communication-Tactical (PEO C3T). “Being able to securely access both military and commercial satellite capabilities in multiple orbits would provide alternate SATCOM paths for greater network resiliency, and options for commanders to enhance their communications PACE [primary, alternate, contingency, emergency] plans.”
While committed to military space systems such as Protected Tactical Service [PTS] -- the Space Force’s planned next generation anti-jamming satellite system -- the Army will always leverage commercial services to supplement military SATCOM to meet its extensive Warfighting data transport needs, Greel added.
PEO C3T is part of a unified cross organizational team -- including the Army Futures Command’s Network Cross Functional Team (N-CFT); Assured Positioning, Navigation and Timing (A-PNT) CFT and Command Combat Capabilities Development Center (CCDC), working in partnership with the Air Force Strategic Development, Planning and Experimentation office– which is conducting early experimentation with emerging mega-constellation providers to understand technologies and provide feedback on DoD requirements.
Among many of its benefits, LEO, MEO, as well as planned high-throughput GEO systems, are expected to enhance the Army’s ability to securely transport data between the command post, Soldiers on-the-move, and from sensors-to-shooters in support of Combined Joint All Domain Command and Control (CJADC2). These new high-throughput low-latency SATCOM solutions will also help the Army to implement network modernization efforts like artificial intelligence data aggregation and edge cloud services.
INITIAL LEO/MEO EXPERIMENTATION
Early Army network integration experimentation with new commercial LEO and MEO satellite communications technologies shows promise. Leveraging CRADAs for experimentation with vendor-provided ground satellite terminal prototype solutions and evolving mega constellations, the team made its first commercial MEO tactical network SATCOM connections in January 2020, at the SATCOM integration facilities at APG. Building upon these successes, Army engineers were able to connect – for the first time – two lab-based command posts over the evolving LEO constellation, in late August 2020, at the same location. The vendors provided pre-production terminals to the Army ahead of their full commercial satellite constellation completion and availability. In return, the Army is providing feedback on the systems’ technical maturity and use cases, to enable the vendors to develop more focused potential solutions to support Army network modernization Capability Set development.
“We will continue to leverage and build on emerging technologies through assessments and lessons learned from all of our technology outreach and experimentation,” said Rich Hoffmann, CCDC Protected SATCOM Lead. “The goal is to better understand what these emerging technologies can and can’t do for the Army, and how they can support our ultimate capability and design goals.”
The team is preparing to resume LEO and MEO SATCOM experimentation at APG, following and building upon experimentation and lessons learned from the Project Convergence 20 excursion, in September 2020, at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.
During Project Convergence 20 – the first of a new continuous, structured series of demonstrations and experiments – the N-CFT and its partners conducted an excursion to further experiment with technologies under consideration for inclusion into CS 23 and beyond. The Project Convergence campaign of learning directly supports the CJADC2 concept, which will enable joint services to connect sensors, shooters, and command nodes in a “mesh network” that will provide commanders with more options, better and faster data, and the ability to act more rapidly.
LEO and MEO efforts during the excursion sought to evaluate the viability of high-throughput, low-latency SATCOM links in support of tactical network modernization and to assess integration requirements. For MEO capability, the team set up two different commercial MEO ground terminals – one at-the-halt and one on-the-move -- and successfully exchanged sensor-to-shooter target threads over the vendor’s new MEO constellation, achieving goals to increase bandwidth and lower latency. A pre-deployment LEO network was also able to successfully support sensor-to-shooter data exchange, despite coverage limitations due to an incomplete constellation. Although LEO capabilities showed promise, they were not yet mature enough to provide the needed thickening and resiliency to the mesh network. However, a planned, more mature LEO constellation is expected to provide full 24/7 coverage in North America next year to support experimentation efforts during Project Convergence 21, with global LEO coverage expected shortly after that.
"We were excited to leverage PC 20 to experiment with alternative paths of communications to provide commanders options and added resiliency,” said Mark Mitcham, N-CFT PC20 Excursion lead and Program Integration Specialist. “This is exactly what cross functional teams were established to do -- take cutting edge commercial technology and determine its viability for inclusion into the Army's network. As this commercial technology matures, we will continue to experiment with it and are optimistic that the capability will become a part of CS 23 and future capability sets, further providing the added resiliency we require in a network to fight through contested and congested environments."
GROUND TERMINAL DESIGN NEEDS
To leverage LEO and MEO capability in support of multi domain operations, the Army needs ground satellite terminals that are easy to deploy and set up by Soldiers in austere environments, with antenna that will be able to automatically re-acquire satellites as they pass by overhead. MEO constellations will typically be comprised of tens of satellites orbiting the Earth, with LEO constellations made up of hundreds and even thousands of smaller satellites. Having so many satellites aides in network resiliency, combating enemy satellite jamming or even destruction, and adding multipath diversity. However, unlike GEO satellites that appear stationary from a point on the Earth’s surface, LEO and MEO move across the sky and require additional tracking and handover capability between satellites.
Compared to current legacy GEO solutions, LEO mega-constellations could provide a 100 times increase in bandwidth and a 10 times reduction in latency, while providing network communications services to a larger density of users. Bandwidth increases for MEO solutions will be slightly less, but significantly more than current GEO capability provides. These improvements will enable more data to be sent at faster rates to a larger number of users, while improving the network performance.
“Each new system has its own strengths and weaknesses, and there will not be a one-size-fits-all solution,” Greel said. “Early experimentation with emerging commercial LEO and MEO capability shows that it can be easily integrated into Army tactical networks and, when fully mature, could serve as additional tools in the Warfighters’ communication tool belt.”
The Army’s multi-constellation strategy will require different ground terminals and eventually integrated scalable multi-functional ground terminals. Today, each GEO, MEO, and LEO solution requires its own dedicated antenna, which increases size, weight, and power requirements. The Army is exploring integrated terminals that support military and commercial multi-orbits and frequency bands, while leveraging the anticipated significant component cost reduction that comes as a result of the commercial deployments. Initially, for potential CS 23 support, the Army envisions using a single frequency-band ground terminal leveraging one specific constellation. Integrated terminals capable of supporting multiple bands and constellations in multiple orbits are being developed for future capability sets.
In addition to leveraging innovative commercial satellite technologies to support its network modernization goals, the Army will also leverage evolving military Protected Anti-Jam Tactical SATCOM (PATS) capabilities, adding even further diversity and resiliency to its tactical network tool suite. This includes PTS, the new high-throughput protected SATCOM service that the Space Force is developing, in synchronization with joint services, to support mobile ground forces conducting expeditionary operations in electronic warfare environments. PTS will augment the military’s legacy Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) constellation, which has been providing protected SATCOM services to joint tactical and strategic users since 2007 when the Air Force launched the first AEHF satellite. The Space Force launched the sixth and final AEHF satellite in March 2020.
The Space Force is developing PATS in an evolutionary manner; initially providing service over the existing military Wideband Global SATCOM satellite system and then adding purpose-built anti-jam PTS satellites. The first rapid prototype PTS satellite is expected to be launched in the next couple of years. In addition to leveraging GEO capability to support PATS efforts, joint partners have begun discussions for the potential to leverage non-geostationary orbit capabilities with multi-constellation-capable tactical terminals when they mature. This will allow Soldiers to access either military or commercial services with the same terminal regardless of the orbit of the service.
Following a commercial business model, the Space Force will manage PATS for the DoD as the military’s first “managed SATCOM service,” with a dedicated mission management system that spans the user terminal, satellites and gateways to the services’ enterprise networks.
COMMERCIAL SATCOM AS A SERVICE
The Army is also looking at a managed service business model, referred to as SATCOM As A Service, to procure commercial SATCOM, with the intent to more affordably keep pace with technology. For instance, in October 2020, the Army released a request for information to industry as part its market research to better understand how commercially managed SATCOM services might support its logistics network modernization efforts, known as Sustainment Tactical Network.
Traditionally, to deliver robust SATCOM to Soldiers on the battlefield, the Army procures each component separately, with commercial hardware, software, bandwidth, maintenance and sustainment support and the numerous other services required to make the network work, often put on separate stand-alone contracts. Conversely, a managed SATCOM provider could deliver all of these elements with one contract, on a leased basis with a monthly service fee.
Instead of the Army trying to keep up with the speed of commercial technology, the provider would also be responsible to continually modernize, update, and even replace capability in a services construct. Provider system updates and technology refresh could enable capability to remain current over time at an affordable cost.
The Army is working closely with joint services and industry, and building a focused roadmap and logical test plan to enable emerging SATCOM capabilities to be run through their paces in future training and capability exercises over the next few years, to learn how this new technology could best support a diverse multipath solution set and make the tactical network more robust and resilient. However, future multi-orbit experimentation timeframes will continue to be driven by terminal availability and constellation coverage.
“Staying ahead in the space race in support of C-JADC2 will require a team effort across the joint services, S&T, acquisition, and sustainment communities and with our industry partners,” said John Anglin, technical management division chief for Project Manager Tactical Network, PEO C3T. “Together, as a unified team, we can deliver the tactical network advancements needed to defeat sophisticated adversaries in any and all domains.”