Army leaders are putting increased emphasis on satellite communications as they build out their vision for a future battlefield network.

In the past, satellite communications have been a precious commodity, available only to select users and, even then, not always readily accessible. The Army’s emerging tactical network vision would make SATCOM virtually ubiquitous and easier to use.

“We are talking about our entire tactical force, from our theater-level satellite network hubs around the globe all the way down to the handheld devices that a soldier employs on the battlefield,” said Col. Greg Coile, the project manager of the tactical network at the Army’s program executive office Command, Control, Communications-Tactical.

The evolving Army network strives for seamlessness across the soldier experience. Army documents detail “a unified tactical network, enabling cohesive mission command at every stage of the joint operational spectrum — from home station to early entry, to the furthest edge of the battlefield.”

Given the geographic reach of the modern military, planners say SATCOM is necessary to make that vision a reality. “Once you get to issues of distance — being in the Middle East or Europe or elsewhere — you cannot just plug into a post or installation, and line of sight is limited. So, you are going to have to rely on satellite,” Coile said.

That future SATCOM infrastructure will look significantly different from what the military has relied on in the past.

In recent years, the Army has used large 2.4-meter terminals to draw a satellite signal down from high-power geostationary satellite constellations to the battalion level. Soldiers then used that signal via a line of sight radio.

Technology advances now allow for smaller, more flexible terminals. At the same time, the Army is looking to leverage the rise of near-Earth orbit (NEO) and medium-Earth orbit (MEO) satellite constellations to deliver more comprehensive satellite communications.

The Army is already taking steps in this direction. With its Expeditionary Signal Battalion-Enhanced (ESB-E) pilot, the service has begun deploying small (.95 meter) and medium (1.3 meter) terminals to select user groups.

Broader availability

Military analysts and satellite service providers generally support the Army’s efforts to leverage a smaller terminal footprint as a starting point to broader satellite availability.

“You want every soldier to be a node in a network, so there is no single point of failure. Smaller terminals that are more capable speak to that desire,” said Jeff Rowlison, vice president for strategy and government relations at the consulting firm Velos.

Rich Williams, associate vice president at satellite services provider LinQuest, added that “smaller terminals, smaller footprints, go hand-in-hand with the LEO and MEO constellations. Because they are close to the Earth, there is much less power needed, which allows you to build smaller antennas, smaller amplifiers.”

Army leaders see several other advantages in leveraging NEO and MEO assets. The commercial space industry has been investing heavily in those orbits because they are closer, they will offer new levels of network performance.

“These new satellites move around the Earth and they work in series, so the message gets through much faster,” Coile said. “All of this could speed up the time that it takes to transmit applications, phone calls, video. We should get much better performance on the network.”

This all looks good on paper: These satellites reach out to small, nimble terminals to broadcast connectivity down through the echelons. Getting there is another matter, however, and will likely require close collaboration between the Army and its industry partners.

The fine print

Experts who track the Army’s network vision point to a number of areas that will require close attention as the service seeks to modernize its SATCOM offerings.

First, there are the terminals themselves. Smaller is better, but that may be not enough.

“For a long time, terminals have been purpose-built to only function within a specific frequency range or a specific system,” Rowlison said. “If the Army is looking at different networks, whether it is commercial or military bands, they will want terminals that have interoperability.”

The Army likely will have to lean on industry expertise to find terminals that are not only smaller but inherently more sophisticated.

“The terminals will have to enable the user to leverage whatever satellite capability is available in a way that is transparent to the user. It’s like turning on a cell phone, you don’t care who is providing the service, you just know that you turn it on and it works. The SATCOM environment needs that same level of interoperability,” Rowlison added.

The developing SATCOM architecture likely will also drive a need for new infrastructure at varying levels across the service.

“With the low-Earth orbit satellites, if there is a building blocking your signal in one direction, you might be wide open in another direction,” said Todd Harrison, senior fellow and director of the aerospace security project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “That means you will need to have a tracking antenna on top of your vehicle so that as you drive it, it just constantly tracks and stays on the available satellite.”

Ground terminals will have to be smart enough to track not only those satellites in near earth and medium earth orbit, but also to perform a seamless hand-off, dropping and picking up signals from one satellite to another as the spacecraft rise and fall over the horizon.

Even if all that can be managed, some say the Army still will need to work hand-in-hand with industry to address a range of security concerns, as it leans more heavily on commercial satellite resources.

“They have to be worried about cybersecurity. They have to be worried about jamming and about spoofing. That’s more of a concern as you adopt these commercial networks that weren’t designed to withstand an onslaught of attack,” Harrison said. “They will need to work with these commercial companies to build that security into their satellites and their ground stations. The time to start doing that is right now, or yesterday. The military needs these things incorporated right from the beginning.”

Keep it simple

While security ranks high on the list of concerns, some industry leaders also urge Army officials to focus on simplicity as a prime consideration. They say that if service leaders are going to rethink the role of SATCOM, they ought to make it easier to use.

“Right now, [communications] trailers get deployed with a host of different boxes: Four different types of modems, three different types of RF equipment. There’s very little ability to move between those different networks and ecosystems,” said Michael Geist, vice president, strategy and technology at technology provider Envistacom. “We want to see Army reduce the appliances, the waveforms and the applications into a single subsystem that does all of those things.”

Along these lines, other Defense Department organizations look to the Army to use new technologies that make it easier to access satellites. Simplified architecture ought to be paired with a high degree of usability. “We are seeing more systems that don’t require specialized training, where you don’t have to have a specific SATCOM operator to use the equipment,” Harrison added.

All this seems to be in line with the Army’s big-picture goal of building a tactical network that is ubiquitous and uniform, one that is readily available and will look familiar to any soldier. If it all comes together that way, war fighters could gain an advantage.

“Now you can put [satellite communications] into the different echelons, moving things much further down,” Williams said. “You get more capabilities, including video and imagery, being pushed down to more people. You’ll have the ability to distribute fairly complex voice, video and data more quickly and in greater detail.”

Learn more about the Army’s progress improving current network offerings in our eBook “Understanding the Army’s Integrated Tactical Network.”