WASHINGTON — The head of U.S. Northern Command wants $80 million to continue testing SpaceX’s and OneWeb’s low Earth orbit satellite internet service, which it believes could solve the military’s Arctic communications woes.
American war fighters rely on a mix of commercial and government-owned satellites for global communications, but that infrastructure begins to run a bit thin above 65 degrees North. Satellite availability above the 70-degree line is extremely limited, leaving U.S. forces and sensors in the Arctic with far less connectivity than the rest of the military.
But a new generation of low Earth orbit satellites designed to deliver commercial broadband could help fill that gap. Using constellations comprising hundreds of satellites, services like SpaceX’s Starlink and OneWeb are being built out to provide internet access to any location on Earth from orbit.
Last year, NORTHCOM and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) asked Congress for $130 million in their unfunded priority list — essentially a wish list of items that didn’t fit into the Pentagon’s annual budget request — to explore using those two constellations for Arctic communications. That funding enabled contract awards to SpaceX and OneWeb for full-scale testing.
Now, NORAD and NORTHCOM Commander Gen. Glen VanHerck requested $79.8 million in his FY22 unfunded priority list obtained by C4ISRNET to continue that effort — that’s about $30 million less than the commands expected to spend in FY22, according to their FY21 request. They would use the funding to test new terminal prototypes that can connect with multiple commercial constellations, a capability laid out in the Space Force’s Fighting SATCOM Vision.
Long term, NORTHCOM suggested that this investment could encourage companies to develop more polar coverage with their communications satellite constellations.
According to the unfunded priority list, SpaceX launched 10 Starlink satellites into polar orbit in January, and plans to launch over a hundred more this summer. OneWeb told C4ISRNET in May that it had launched 182 satellites with plans to deliver Arctic coverage by the end of 2021. That’s in line with VanHerck’s letter, where he said he expects 24/7 Arctic coverage provided by multiple commercial providers around January 2022. The general noted that additional funding will be needed in FY23 and beyond for commercial service contracts and terminals.
Defense News reporter Joe Gould contributed to this report.
Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.