In just the past few years, advances in network management technology for commercial communications have allowed communications satellites to evolve rapidly from stand-alone signal carriers to being part of the much larger global network of fiber-optic cable and integrated ground stations. These new network management tools incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to shift users seamlessly between satellite constellations, ground stations and terrestrial connections as customers require. Users with global communications requirements such as the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) can only benefit fully from these new, software defined networks by taking an open-architecture approach and working with partners who have the ability to actively manage and continually upgrade these complex systems.

The DoD continues to pursue the right mix of satellite communications capabilities to support its operations in hot spots stretching around the world. Until just recently, each branch of the service came up with its own solutions, with the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines sometimes using only military spacecraft and at others relying on a hybrid that blended signals from a government constellation with other capacity provided by commercial satellite operators. The existing military constellations are generally “stovepipe” designs with little interoperability between them. And many of the commercial constellations used by the DoD are closed systems that required military users to have specific types of modems and other terrestrial equipment.

This is all changing. The DoD has now shifted all satellite communications management to the newly created U.S. Space Force under the command of General John Raymond. In January, Raymond issued a forward-thinking Vision for Satellite Communications white paper that called for the DoD to shift toward open architecture systems that would provide “capacity flexibility, terminal and network agility, cyber and link security, and data interoperability.” Raymond’s vision is that a combination of military and commercial satellite networks will provide forces on the ground, at sea and in the air with a variety of innovative communications tools they need to overcome network interruptions and withstand degraded and operationally limited environments in today’s complex, all-domain environment.

However, this can only happen with sophisticated software and systems that can manage traffic across both military and commercial constellations, frequency bands, and varieties of both new and legacy ground equipment. Commercial satellite communications providers like Hughes Network Systems, LLC (HUGHES) have developed best-of-breed networking tools that give users the ability to maintain network connections, while rapidly and even simultaneously transitioning to a different beam, modem, satellite or system.

One example of this is the Hughes Flexible Modem Interface (FMI) which we recently demonstrated with the U.S. Air Force. The FMI incorporates AI/ML techniques to manage communications seamlessly across multiple transport paths, frequencies, modems and terminals used by both commercial and military providers. In the demonstration, Hughes used the prototyped-FMI capability to allow a terminal, ready for airborne operations on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), to roam across diverse satellite networks and services. This end-to-end solution demonstration showed that flexible, open-systems architecture technologies can support UAVs in seamlessly transmitting real-time feeds of high-definition video and other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data even when switching service over multiple satellites.

Hughes conducted a similar demonstration of FMI in 2019 with the International Space Station (ISS). In the demonstration at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio, the FMI software controlled two modems onboard the ISS, orbiting 254 miles above the Earth, using automated commands to switch the transmission from modem to modem based on conditional rulesets. A significant advantage of the software-based FMI is that it can be used with existing terminals, making it possible to add secondary and tertiary service options for connectivity without needing to replace large volumes of expensive hardware.

The FMI and our overall network management capabilities were developed because Hughes has a long heritage of managing complex commercial networks for a wide range of customers with global operations. As one might expect, distributed enterprises and government agencies often have vastly different types of transport technologies across their sites, spanning fiber, cable, LTE, and satellite. We optimize these kinds of diverse networks every day with our software-defined wide-area network (SD-WAN) solutions, with individual deployments connecting as many as 3,500 sites. What’s more, we have almost half a million enterprise sites under management worldwide, not to mention the largest satellite internet network, HughesNet, with 1.5 million endpoints. These managed network services deliver cost-effective service focused on high Quality of Service levels that Hughes guarantees to its customers.

The U.S. Space Force’s Commercial Satellite Communications Office (CSCO), under Clare Grason’s leadership, is considering many changes that will incorporate these types of commercial capabilities based on so-called ‘service-level agreements.’ In effect, military users would become subscribers to commercial, open-systems architecture services. Applying open-systems modularity with continuous software development and upgrade cycles to the DoD enterprise-wide satellite networks and users will provide many benefits:

  • Increasingly responsive allocation and re-provisioning of U.S. military, commercial and coalition partner satellite resources.
  • Automatically moving and restoring the highest priority users in times of degraded service or conflict.
  • Resolving electromagnetic interference.
  • Improving crisis planning.
  • Reconfiguring and optimizing the enterprise when resources are lost or degraded.

As bold as Raymond’s vision might be, the DoD does not have the internal capability to manage the complex networks required to achieve his ambitious goals. War fighters and commanders are trained to execute their missions not manage today’s ever-changing, global networks. By leveraging commercially provided open-systems tools and services adapted to meet their requirements efficiently, the DoD’s satellite communications capability will be better suited to the war fighter compared to today’s vendor-locked, program-by-program infrastructure.

Using commercial network management resources will provide the DoD with the highest quality connectivity at every end point of its global operations and the ability to manage its varied resources across a single, enterprise-wide network for optimal efficiency and resiliency across the multi-domain landscape. The DoD user will be able to easily access and control the network with tools designed to understand, adapt and act dynamically as missions require.

As Raymond has made clear, the DoD is working to become faster and more innovative in allocating and acquiring satellite communications resources, both in space and on the ground. A resilient, secure, interoperable communications infrastructure is vital in collecting and relaying the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data that allows U.S. and allied forces to understand their widely varied operating environments, and to support the command and control (C2) that shapes the tactical activities within those theaters of operation. By looking to commercial providers for state-of-the-art network management tools leveraging AI/ML techniques, the DoD will be able to make the best use of its hybrid, satellite communications resources.

Rick Lober is the VP/GM at Hughes Defense Systems.

More In Opinion