Few things are easy in Utqiagvik, Alaska. Sandbag barriers hold back the tide of the rising Arctic Ocean, milk costs $10 a gallon, and during the winter months, 24 hours of darkness cloak this northernmost city in the United States. The 4,000 residents of this remote town struggle with many things most Americans take for granted, including affordable communications access. In fact, for many rural Alaska residents — some 30 percent of the state’s population — the ability to access modern services like telemedicine and remote education has never been a possibility.
The Department of the Air Force, through the U.S. Space Force and Air Force Research Laboratory, is embarking on two ventures with sweeping implications for the Arctic region and for how the department does business there. Both projects have the potential to dramatically improve the lives of the region’s residents, and both rely on collaborating outside the U.S. government to adapt and move quickly.
Timing is critical as the mineral-rich Arctic becomes a new frontier in national security and economic pursuits. Space plays a fundamental role in national defense, and there are few places where that is truer than the Arctic, where the environment’s immense challenges and sparse infrastructure are tailor-made for space applications.
The North American Arctic has long remained hard to navigate and technologically disconnected because, to date, our satellite orbits have not been optimized to support these northernmost latitudes. But that is changing. Released last year, the Department of the Air Force’s Arctic Strategy set out to address some of these gaps, and this work will, for the first time, bring higher speed and reliable communications access to both U.S. forces and civilian populations.
The first of these initiatives involves partnering with the growing commercial space industry. This year, the Department of the Air Force will invest $50 million toward testing polar satellites in low Earth orbit. The use of low Earth orbit is a new endeavor for the department. These satellites will be closer to Earth, resulting in reduced launch costs and faster data transmission. Throughout 2021, we will sponsor launches of dozens of satellites, test laser links for communications between the satellites and install cold-hardened ground terminals across the Arctic region.
The department will not build or develop these satellites, nor will it ever own them. Instead, its aim is to lease service from the commercial companies, which deploy and operate them. Leasing creates the opportunity for private sector companies to compete to provide the best service, fostering greater ingenuity and innovation. By sponsoring the pilot program in the region, the department is encouraging commercial innovation while creating a game-changing capability for all U.S. military forces that provides residual benefit to underserved Americans.
If the systems work as planned, for the first time U.S. forces — with the Air Force, Space Force, Marine Corps, Navy, Army and Coast Guard — will enjoy reliable Arctic communications for missions ranging from search and rescue to complex training exercises. Importantly, these commercial space capabilities can also be used by civilian populations living in remote Arctic regions who have long struggled to have adequate coverage for the daily conveniences of digital life.
The second venture is one of international partnership, another area for growth across the U.S. Space Force. In a novel approach, a NATO treaty ally — Norway — is hosting U.S. communications payloads on a soon-to-be-launched satellite. This partnership will provide protected satellite communications across the polar region for many of our forces. Working with a key ally allows the nation to get this critical payload into orbit sooner, and leveraging existing infrastructure will save nearly $1 billion.
These efforts come at a crucial moment, with the Arctic undergoing dramatic changes due to a changing climate and the ongoing revolution in space technology. As America’s armed forces look to overcome decades-long operating challenges in the Arctic, the military services are obligated to think differently. By harnessing commercial innovation and nurturing international partners, the U.S. Space Force is bringing long-needed capability to the region, rapidly and at greatly reduced cost.
Space is hard, and so is the Arctic. By working smartly in one realm, we are increasing our ability to operate effectively in the second.
U.S. Space Force Lt. Gen. Bill Liquori is the deputy chief of space operations for strategy, plans, programs, requirements and analysis. Iris Ferguson is a senior adviser to the U.S. Air Force. She authored the service’s Arctic Strategy.