The future of military satellite communications23 March 2018
Military satellite communications are a hugely important resource, but are becoming increasingly vulnerable to outside threats and are struggling to meet the growing demand for bandwidth. We explore how governments and industry are working together to secure the future of the sector.
Military satellite communications – often known as milsatcom – are evolving fast. The past few years have seen major advances in terms of performance and capacity, with the latest generation of satellites representing a major step up from their predecessors.
Take the Wideband Global SATCOM system (WGS), the US Department of Defense (DoD)’s highest-capacity communication satellites. In March 2017, the ninth WGS satellite was launched into orbit, joining a constellation more than 22,000 miles above the equator. The tenth and final spacecraft is on course to be launched in 2019.
Used to relay high-bandwidth data to the US military forces, WGS supports television broadcasts, video conferences and many other types of communication. It replaces the existing Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS), which comprises 14 satellites launched between 1989 and 2003. It’s a major change – each WGS spacecraft boasts as much bandwidth as the entire DSCS constellation.
“WGS provides anytime, anywhere communications for soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and international partnerships through broadcast, multicast and point-to-point connections,” said Robert Tarleton, director of the Military Satellite Communications Systems Directorate at Air Force Space Command, following the launch of the ninth satellite.
Clearly, the new hardware is a vital addition to military communications, helping combatant commanders stay connected to their forces wherever they might be. However, despite their much-touted benefits, the programme has been wracked with frustrations. In 2010, a government report stated that most of the DoD’s large space acquisitions “have experienced problems during the past two decades that have driven up costs by billions of dollars, stretched schedules by years and increased technical risks”. WGS is no exception: while initially estimated to cost $1.2 billion, that figure had surged to $4.1 billion by 2012 – a rise of about 235%. What’s more, the first satellites in orbit were unable to carry the expected amount of bandwidth, despite the hike in costs.
At the same time, capacity demands continue to increase. Rising numbers of UAVs have created vast quantities of data that cannot easily be managed through government bandwidth. On top of that, it is important that new satcom services can be deployed at speed, particularly during contingency operations. The US DoD has a 34% year-over-year growth rate in bandwidth consumption, with short-term growth peaking at 69%.
With these kinds of issues ongoing, the US DoD has been looking towards the commercial satellite sector to fill its capacity gaps. As of 2013, the Pentagon spent nearly $1 billion a year on commercial bandwidth, or around 80% of the total.
According to a 2011 study by Northern Sky Research, “As developments around the globe continue to put strains on internal capabilities, the need for commercial capacity would appear to continue unabated, if only to achieve some sort of flexibility for military bandwidth planners.”
Thomas Becht, SMC’s deputy director for MILSATCOM Systems made this case even more clearly at the eighth WGS satellite launch in 2016. “There is an enormous demand from the warfighter for satellite communications. Unfortunately, ten dedicated satellites aren’t enough to meet that demand,” he said.
Evidently, commercial satellites will remain an important part of the satcom mix. The question, then, is how the military can harness this situation to its advantage, addressing whatever concerns arise around security, coverage or costs.
Delegates analysed these topics in detail at the latest MilSatcom USA conference, which took place in June 2017 in Virginia. As well as exploring the uses of commercial satcom, they looked at the threats facing the space domain, not least jamming, space debris, anti-satellite capabilities and cyber. Above all, they debated how they could improve the effectiveness of milsatcom systems now and into the future.
One major topic to emerge was the need for increased protection. This means protecting the frequencies and signals themselves, as well as upping cybersecurity.
“Milsatcom is such a precious resource,” said US Army Major General Peter Gallagher, director of architecture, operations, networks, and space for the army chief information officer. “Because this is such a precious resource, we have to protect it.”
“The fact that we don’t have as many protected systems as we should have really concerns me,” added Marine Colonel Curtis Carlin of the US Central Command. “I look out there and see our vulnerabilities now that could be greatly exploited from not that advanced an enemy… I want my systems protected.”
The issue here is that commercial satcom suppliers may not always be willing to invest in advanced security measures. Security is expensive, and the majority of their civilian customers do not need military-grade protection.
This is not to say that civilian enterprises aren’t vulnerable. In 2013, the pan-Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera accused Egypt of jamming its signal, interfering with its programming. This followed a 2012 incident in which UK technicians were said to have blocked Iranian broadcasts.
However, when satellite jamming occurs in a military context, the consequences can be especially grave. If communications go down, or are intercepted, sensitive data can be hacked into and lives lost.
In 2014, researchers from the security firm IOActive analysed some popular commercially available satcom devices. They uncovered multiple high-risk vulnerabilities within all these devices, which, they claimed, might allow a hacker to “intercept, manipulate, or block communications, and in some cases, to remotely take control of the physical device”.
These vulnerabilities included “multiple backdoors, hardcoded credentials, undocumented and/or insecure protocols, and weak encryption algorithms”, all of which might end up putting the entire satcom infrastructure at risk. Since then, a number of companies have pushed to improve their security measures, and there are a number of protected systems in military use.
For instance, Lockheed Martin manufactured the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites that went live in mid-2015. These were designed to replace the legacy Milstar constellation, boasting data rates five times faster and twice as many connections. They are also jam-resistant, making them suitable for high-priority military operations.
“Compared with anything else on orbit, AEHF gives an unmatched level of protection and has five times the speed of legacy protected communication systems,” said Mark Calassa, vice-president of protected communication systems at Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “With AEHF reaching IOC, the system’s international partners can more quickly and safely command some of the world’s most capable militaries to address global instability as it arises.”
Out of a jam
The AEHF satellites use frequency-hopping radio technology to reduce their risk of interception. They also incorporate phase array antennas that can adapt their radiation patterns, further protecting against jamming. Among the many commercial satcom systems in use, AEHF is the only one that guards against the full spectrum of threats.
Other ways of reducing jamming include reducing the data rate, spreading spectrum techniques and improving encryption technology.
Then there is the use of different communications frequencies. In 2013, BAE Systems, together with EADS Astrium, announced it had developed a new ‘satellite super-highway’. Through tapping into the Ka band, a rarely-used communications frequency, data can bypass the usual satellite pathways that are already congested with civilian data.
“Transferring data in this way offers distinct advantages, especially for UAVs that need to quickly and securely transfer large amounts of data during mission phases,” said John Airey of BAE Systems’ Future Combat Air Systems business.
Viasat, meanwhile, is developing high-capacity satellites for government use, which have been touted as having ‘the bandwidth capacity to dramatically improve mission performance and decisive warfighter advantage at a far lower cost than the DoD pays today’. It has protections in place including firewalls, intrusion-detection systems and analytics, with a view to fending against infrastructure attacks.
We could cite many further examples. However, as experts at the MilSatcom USA conference reinforced, the industry still isn’t investing sufficiently in anti-jam capabilities, particularly when it comes to basic communications.
Brian Teeple, the deputy chief information officer for command, control, communications, and computer (C4) at the DoD, said the need for protection was important because adversaries could attack any point in a system.
“It comes down to ‘what is the weakest link? What are they going to go after?” he said. “You have to start looking at terminals and user equipment like they’re computers [as] there are cyber vulnerabilities and we’ve got to get protections in place.”
Evidently, the industry will need to push harder to address these security concerns, as well as boosting its bandwidth capacity. With regard to the latter, many commercial manufacturers are now shifting towards high-throughput satellites (HTS), which are improving satcom capabilities in the public and private sectors.
According to Northern Sky Research, high-throughput satellites will generate nearly half of total global SATCOM revenues by 2025, up from 15% in 2015. These solutions promise to deliver a much higher capacity than traditional satellite services at a fraction of the cost, with clear implications for defence business models.
What happens next
It’s a transitional time, and what comes next is open to question. In December 2016, the US DoD kicked off its ‘wideband Analysis of Alternatives’ study, to determine what the next steps in military satellite communication might be. The goal is to inform future Pentagon decisions on milsatcom, and above all to decide what will follow the final WGS satellite. Industry representatives have been invited to pitch ideas.
“The Air Force was designated as the lead component for the programme,” Captain Annmarie Annicelli, Air Force spokesperson, told Space News. “We look forward to working with our industry and international partners over the course of the AoA to determine the best mix of military and commercial satcom to ensure the satcom architecture is resilient in a future contested environment.”
Although the specifics of that mix are still unclear, we are likely to see many more government-industry partnerships in future. As well as those under way in the US, there are a number of examples within Europe. Luxembourg has teamed up with SES on a $250-million satellite venture, while UK’s Skynet 6 satellites were recently contracted to Airbus.
With security an ever-present concern, there is a strong momentum building in the industry. The Global MilSatCom 2017 conference, which took place in November in London, was the most-attended conference in its 19-year history, with delegate numbers up by 30%.
General Sir Chris Deverell, Commander of Joint Forces Command, said at the conference that we can no longer expect our satellites to operate unchallenged, especially since Russia and China have both admitted to developing direct ascent anti-satellite missiles.
However, he added that there are positive changes occurring too, particularly around commercial investment in space-related R&D. “It is no longer governments and defence departments who are driving innovation, and this is leading to greater accessibility and lower costs,” he said. “As this market continues to develop, we will work together to ensure the continued security of the space domain.”