Commercial satcom: A game-changer for military operations

by Staff Reporter | April 22nd, 2012

Gerard Donelan, vice president, public sector projects, SES

Modern-day commanders are more likely to ask for bandwidth than aircraft carriers, as governments work with commercial satellite operators to meet the growing bandwidth needs of lean, nimble military forces across the globe. Experts at Milsatcom Abu Dhabi, unravel the emergence of satellite as a force multiplier

Looking at the challenges and solutions for space capacity for government/military needs, Gerard Donelan, vice president, public sector projects, SES, looks at the ground realities that have driven change, the emergence of satellite as a force multiplier and the potential solutions available today.

“The development of military operation patterns calls for increased satellite use,” says Donelan. He adds, “From a well-defined single mission theatre of operation, we now have multiple-theatre operations that call for simultaneous missions on a global scale.

Also, from an emphasis on conventional and heavy military means that included tank divisions and heavy artillery in the past, we now see an emphasis on highly mobile special operations forces that is quickly deployable.” Among other factors that have driven change in nature of operations, according to Donelan, is the shift from the use of autonomous units to increased need for coordination with national and international partners.

“Operations,” says Donelan, “were, in the past, conducted within or close to one’s homeland with the use of voice or teletype communications. Today with the theatre of operations having grown to a global scale, forces need more data-intensive weapon systems requiring ad-hoc infrastructure, e.g. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), and full motion video. Lastly, in the past, militaries had minimal welfare communications restricted to letters and large field hospitals. Today, welfare communication and remote medical support are must haves and there are more peacekeeping and humanitarian missions being conducted worldwide.”

Advantages of deploying satellite solutions

Satellite connections, according to Donelan,”transcend physical barriers and span geographic distances better than ground-based networks, and can be established almost immediately, virtually anywhere. Moreover with global coverage, satellite solutions are distance insensitive, flexible and rapidly deployable and most significantly, they are application agnostic.”

For C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance), satellites link collectors with effectors and decision-makers. They enable decision making agility, initiative, precision and coherence of operations across the  battle space and lastly, satellites enable information superiority to “boots on the ground” as a true force multiplier.

Elaborating on the advantages of the deploying satellite solutions, Donelan says,”For C4ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance), satellites link collectors with effectors and decision-makers. They enable decision making agility, initiative, precision and coherence of operations across the  battle space and lastly, satellites enable information superiority to “boots on the ground” as a true force multiplier.”

The factors driving the surge in demand include net-centric programmes , global conflicts, relief efforts (Haiti/Japan), communications-on-the-move (COTM), UAVs’ data requirements, enhanced network usage and applications, larger data transfers (enhanced imagery),  increased use of handheld devices, medical imagery and welfare communications, among other factors.

Highlighting SES’s own experience, Donelan says, “After many years of exploring options for a NATO owned and operated airborne ground surveillance capability, NATO decided on the Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) Programme consisting of a fleet of Global Hawks’ UAVs. Within the NATO AGS Programme, SES is responsible for satellite engineering services and provision of the required satellite test capacity.” Today, there are more than 6,700 operational unmanned aircraft in NATO and the numbers are growing.

“Welfare,” says Donelan, “is an emerging government and military focus area. Modern soldiers expect to use Twitter, Facebook, Skype, YouTube and so on. Seen as a morale booster, the military looks at welfare as a moral obligation.”

Challenges and potential solutions

The challenges facing governments and militaries include shrinking defence budgets, global deployments, multiple deployments, ever increasing demand for Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), massive demand from UAVs, expectations of commanders, increasing demand from lower levels for  instant information, morale and welfare requirements and increasing demand for medical imagery, among other factors.

Of potential solutions, Donelan includes, “a national Milsat or space programme, shared satellite, hosted payload or capacity leasing. The issues that typically face the development of a national satellite programme are time and cost factors.

Teaming with an experienced satellite operator can save time and costs, whilst reducing risk. For such a collaboration to be successful there must be up-front planning and cooperation as well as an understanding of the appropriate role and uses of Satcom in terms of issues such as who really requires full motion video or do all commands and levels need instant communications?“

Dr. Ahmad Tanvir, product development manager, defence & security, EADS Astrium

Satellite architecture for resilient networks

Elaborating on the satellite architecture for resilient networks, Dr. Ahmad Tanvir, product development manager, defence & security, EADS Astrium says, “Information superiority is key on the battlefield, requiring real or near real-time information exchange to mobile, fixed and on-the-move users.”

Satellites are key, says Dr.Tanvir, to meeting information exchange needs because of certain inherent advantages over terrestrial communication systems such as “providing unimpeded, continuous and persistent global coverage, rapidity and ease of deployment and faster decision making cycles enabled by swift, accurate and continuous information. In addition, satellites allow for networked capability ensuring co-ordinated and joint operations of joint land, air and sea forces.”

Militaries, says Dr, Tanvir, fully realise the value of satellite capability and consequently, invest significant resources in developing and utilising satellites.

Military systems need to withstand potential threats and vulnerabilities such as RF jamming that includes the denial of uplink and/or downlink signals, the blinding of sensors by laser, a High Altitude Nuclear Event (HANE), physical attack on orbital or ground segment and cyber attack on command and control, among other threats.

Unique needs of military satellites

Enumerating the unique needs of military satellites, Dr. Tanvir says, “Military systems need to withstand potential threats and vulnerabilities such as RF jamming that includes the denial of uplink and/or downlink signals, the blinding of sensors by laser, a High Altitude Nuclear Event (HANE), physical attack on orbital or ground segment and cyber attack on command and control, among other threats.

“Moreover, they should provide global coverage, support legacy users, enable interoperability and network with other users, be able to meet normal as well as war time capacity and be future proof in terms of being state of the art.”

Looking at the current and future trends in demand, Dr. Tanvir says, “Exponential growth in data and bandwidth is expected. Currently demand is outstripping capacity and substantial demand is being met by commercial satellites.

“As not all military communication requires hardened and protected communication links, this use of commercial satellites will continue into the future. In addition, the need for protected and hardened communications will increase by a factor of 10.”

Trade-offs while acquiring space capacity

Since early 70’s, Astrium has designed, built and launched 15 military satellites. Based on this extensive experience, Dr. Tanvir commented on the trade-offs that are typically considered by defence authorities while acquiring space capacity. He says, “For instance, the criticality and hence the need for protection would involve a tradeoff between core and non-core needs. Mission requirements would call for weighing strategic needs versus tactical needs. Also the intensity of use has to be considered. Finally financial considerations would include factors such as capital versus operational costs.”

The mix and choice of three models, according to Dr. Tanvir, can meet the overall military Satcom needs:

  • Dedicated military satellites
  • Hosted military payloads on commercial satellites
  • Leased commercial transponder capacity

Dedicated military satellites

“These satellites are designed and built on particular specifications at military frequency bands (UHF, SHF, Ka, EHF & S-band) and are operated by military agencies,” says Dr. Tanvir. He adds, “There are three sub options to procure dedicated military satellites, including asset  procurement. This involves up front capital costs for development, design, build and launch of satellites and associated ground segments – an initiative only large powers can afford. Examples include: UK – Skynet 4; USA – Milstar, MUOS, WGS and AEHF; France – Syracuse 3; Nato – Nato 4A and 4B; Italy – SICRAL 2.

“The second sub option is taking the services procurement route. A prime example is the UK that procured secure military communication services from Astrium Satellite Services through private finance initiative (PFI) on Skynet5.

“And the third sub option is buying into a Milsatcom fleet. An instance of this option is that of the Australian Defence Force that has bought into a global fleet by buying a US Department of Defence (DoD) WGS satellite.”

Hosted payloads

“Dedicated military payloads on commercial satellites are an attractive model because of the many advantages,” says Dr. Tanvir. Enumerating the advantages, he says, “Payload is specified to military agency needs and it is paid and operated by military agencies. Moreover there is an automatic distribution of risks with the shared platform model and that includes launch costs.

“A hosted payload is more flexible and cost effective than a dedicated military satellite. And success of this model depends on effective and timely negotiations to balance satellite resources, orbital position and schedule for commercial and military missions. Examples for this option are Measat, a hybrid commercial and government mission, Yahsat, a hybrid commercial and government mission, Turkey on Turksat 3A, US DoD military payloads on Intelsat satellites and Telesat’s Anik F1R, Australia on Optus C1 and Korea on Koreasat 5.”

Leased commercial transponder capacity

Dr Tanvir says, “The lease of commercial transponder capacity is done either on a permanent basis or on occasional usage basis. This option is exercised to carry nonsecure, least protected communication, as a back up or additional capacity to dedicated Milsatcom, such as used by US DoD, UK MoD and France. Small and mid-sized countries that elect not to purchase dedicated military satellites or hosted military payloads on commercial satellites go for this option. It allows military agencies to focus on core military operations and leave operators to provide managed services.

“Military agencies are utilising novel procurement methods and asking for packaged services including voice, data, video and internet via commercial-off-the-shelf equipments.“

The key payload features include flexible coverage, anti-jamming capability, robust and survivable repeaters and security. Flexibility in power, bandwidth and coverage is achieved through multiple spot beams, high gain and flexible coverage and dynamic power and bandwidth allocation where most needed, among other factors.

The general architecture of military payloads

Dr. Tanvir says, “The key payload features include flexible coverage, anti-jamming capability, robust and survivable repeaters and security. Flexibility in power, bandwidth and coverage is achieved through multiple spot beams, high gain and flexible coverage and dynamic power and bandwidth allocation where most needed, among other factors.

“Anti-jamming is achieved through simulated on-board phased array antenna patterns for multi-beam coverage including nulling within coverage. And lastly, security is achieved through various solutions that include cryptographic products for ground and space, key management for encryption and decryption, and frequency hopping, among other solutions. To ensure robustness of the payload, the aspects looked into are high linearity, large dynamic range, resistance to high power microwave attack, stringent filter rejection characteristics, nuclear hardened electronics and panels and laser and nuclear hardened platforms, among other features.”

Overall Dr. Tanvir believes that information exchange requirements for military missions have increased and are continuously increasing and this growing demand cannot be met with dedicated military satellites alone.

“With co-operation from commercial satellite operators, either to accommodate hosted payload or just provide packaged and managed military services, the needs of many militaries around the globe including major powers could be met,” says Dr.Tanvir. He adds, “Trends in military payloads are towards greater flexibility for coverage, power and bandwidth enabling information dominant, agile and rapid reaction missions.”

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