The U.S. Air Force wants to use a small satellite in low earth orbit to help offer beyond-line-of-sight tactical communications to soldiers on the battlefield.

Such a satellite would be outfitted with a Link 16 terminal. Link 16 is a tactical data exchange network that provides a picture of where friendly and enemy forces are located, allowing the military to share a common understanding of the battlefield. Military leaders rely on Link 16 as a critical tool in identifying friend from foe in the heat of a battle.

But to date, Link 16 technology has only been capable of line-of-sight communications. That means that forces not within line-of-sight communications are not receiving the most complete understanding of where troops are located on the battlefield.

Now the Air Force wants to change that.

On May 22, Viasat announced that it had been awarded a $10 million contract through the Space Enterprise Consortium to develop the first Link 16-capable spacecraft under the Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles XVI program. The satellite will be placed in low earth orbit and operate within the company’s hybrid adaptive network, allowing Link 16 users to communicate worldwide.

“The Viasat-designed spacecraft is intended to enhance warfighters’ situational awareness by extending the range of Link 16 networks – using a constellation of satellites to provide greater access to Link 16 capabilities in contested or congested environments,” the company said in a press release. “Under the XVI program, Viasat will become the first company to prototype and test space-based Link 16 capabilities compatible with fielded U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Special Operations Link 16-enabled platforms, including ground vehicles, aircraft, maritime vessels, and dismounted users.”

The expected launch date for the spacecraft is summer 2020, a company representative said.

Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.

More In Satellites