WASHINGTON — A new Link 16-capable satellite being developed by Viasat will feature military-grade encryption, the company announced June 1.
Link 16 is the U.S. military’s primary tactical data exchange network, allowing joint war fighters to share information on the location of friendly and enemy forces to build a common operating picture of the battlefield. But while Link 16 is of critical importance to the military in understanding the modern battlefield, it is technically limited to communications to other terminals within line of sight. In other words, it can’t be used to incorporate data from sensors and war fighters that are too far away.
The Air Force Research Laboratory wanted to change that. In 2019, the lab issued a $10 million contract to Viasat through the Space Enterprise Consortium to build a Link 16-capable satellite. By directly tying into the Link 16 tactical network from low Earth orbit, the satellite could provide a connection node with beyond-line-of-sight forces. This space vehicle would use the vantage of orbit to connect — via Link 16 — systems that would otherwise be limited to line-of-sight communications.
The Link 16 payload will be incorporated into a Blue Canyon Technologies bus with an antenna array provided by Roccor.
Now, Viasat says the satellite will integrate the company’s In-Line Network Encryptor, giving the system radiation-tolerant network encryption that can support more than 100 megabits of throughput per second. That level of encryption will ensure that classified data can be securely transported through the otherwise unclassified satellite.
“In addition to building and testing the first-ever Link 16-capable LEO satellite prototype, Viasat is also focused on delivering the first high assurance, fully-programmable crypto deployed in space,” President of Government Systems Craig Miller said in a statement. “Our focus is on revolutionizing space-based cryptographic and cybersecurity solutions by moving away from embedded, fixed single-application ASICs and moving to ‘plug and play,’ fully-programmable, multi-functional and highly-efficient military-grade cryptos that can be rapidly deployed by supporting commercial off the shelf technology enhancements for small satellites.”
The experimental Viasat satellite will help reduce risk for the ambitious plans of the Space Development Agency, which is working to launch a new proliferated constellation made up of hundreds of satellites mostly in low Earth orbit. That constellation will create a mesh network on orbit with optical intersatellite links (OISL) that can transport data from satellite to satellite all over the globe. Just like with the AFRL satellite, SDA plans to outfit some of its satellites with Link 16 terminals, essentially enabling the U.S. military to push data to war fighters all over the world via the tactical network. Six of the agency’s first satellites — set to begin launching in 2022 — will be outfitted with Link 16 terminals.
Viasat initially anticipated launching the experimental satellite in summer 2020 but has pushed back the launch to fall 2021.
Nathan Strout was the staff editor at C4ISRNET, where he covered the intelligence community.