EMERGING CAPABILITIES: In January, the PEO C3T, N-CFT and the CCDC C5ISR team concluded the initial phases of medium Earth orbit satellite testing with prototype ground satellite terminals, at the C5ISR Center’s Joint Satellite Communications Engineering Center. The Army, in collaboration with industry, is developing a road map for testing emerging satellite communications capability in training and exercises, to inform Army decisions on integrating innovative technologies into the greater network. (U.S. Army photos by Amy Walker, PM Tactical Network/PEO C3T Public Affairs)
Future mega satellite constellations to power Army network modernization.
by John Anglin, Seth Spoenlein and Amy Walker
The Army’s tactical network modernization strategy will enable a future force that can leverage a network that is vastly more robust, mobile and resilient than it is today. In line with this strategy, the Army is laying the foundation for its future network now, so it can take full advantage of emerging technologies expected to make major impacts when they become available. These enhancements include new capability provided by commercial and military space technologies, such as low Earth orbit (LEO) mega-constellations and medium Earth orbit (MEO) and geostationary high-throughput satellites.
The Army is working across its acquisition, modernization, and research and development communities, joint partners and industry to experiment with these evolving technologies and better understand how they could fuel the network of the future. The Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications – Tactical (PEO C3T); the Network Cross-Functional Team (CFT) at the U.S. Army Futures Command, and the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) C5ISR Center are working closely with industry to build a focused road map and test plan that will allow emerging satellite communications capability to be run through its paces in training and exercises over the next couple of years. These events will inform Army decisions on how innovative technologies could best integrate into the greater network.
ONE NETWORK, MULTIPLE SOLUTIONS
The Army’s current satellite capability provides at-the-halt and on-the-move, beyond-line-of-sight network communications to Soldiers dispersed over large regions in remote and challenging terrain. The service leverages a mix of commercial and military satellites in the Earth’s geosynchronous orbit. The Army is reevaluating its satellite communications architecture to incorporate both military and commercial solutions across geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO), MEO and LEO constellations. This diversity would allow for optimizing the best solution set while making the network more robust.
So what’s the physical difference between LEO, MEO and GEO satellites? LEO satellites orbit between 90 and 1,200 miles from the Earth’s surface; MEO satellites orbit from 1,200 to 22,000 miles from Earth; and large GEO satellites orbit farthest away at 22,000 miles plus. MEO and LEO constellations require more satellites than GEO to achieve the required coverage. MEO constellations will typically require tens of satellites, where LEO requires hundreds and even thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth. GEO satellites appear stationary from a point on the Earth’s surface, whereas LEO and MEO move across the sky and require additional tracking and handover capability between satellites.
Each solution has its own strengths and weaknesses. There will not be a final one-size-fits-all solution—different threats may require different solutions. Instead, the Army will capitalize on the strengths of all of these evolving capabilities to provide commanders and signal officers with multiple network communication capabilities and signal path options to optimally support their missions.
MORE BANDWIDTH, LESS LATENCY
LEO and MEO satellite communication capabilities are expected to provide huge increases in network bandwidth while significantly reducing latency, the time it takes for data to travel from the source to the destination. Both are must-haves for many of the Army’s network modernization efforts. When compared with current GEO solutions, the anticipated deployment of mega-constellations operating in LEO could provide a 100 times increase in bandwidth and a 10 times reduction in latency, while providing network communication services to a greater density of users supporting a mission. MEO bandwidth increases will be slightly less, but significantly more than current GEO capability provides. Bottom line: These improvements will enable more data to be sent faster to a larger number of users.
The anticipated proliferation of LEO and MEO satellite capabilities by commercial industry provides the potential to significantly increase the communications capacity across the Army. It would deliver expeditionary, mobile, beyond-line-of-sight communications with increased bandwidth and low latency to better enable the Army’s mission command systems.
High-throughput systems in GEO, LEO and MEO solutions are also expected to reduce stress on overburdened military GEO satellite capability and provide more connection options for increased network resiliency. LEO satellite constellations will contain numerous small satellites at a much lower altitude, with the natural physical resiliency that comes with having so many satellites. The signals don’t have to travel as far to get to the satellite, so the latency is significantly reduced, which will significantly improve the performance of the network, especially for real-time applications.
Among many potential applications, LEO and MEO capabilities are expected to enhance the Army’s ability to aggregate data supporting artificial intelligence and to leverage edge cloud services. Edge cloud services enable Soldiers to gain quick access to data and software through multiple small data centers located close to the user, which reduces bandwidth usage and latency compared with accessing large, distant data centers. With successful inter-satellite links, these solutions could also enable the Army to put more complex network functions and mission support capabilities in safe sanctuaries, pulling complexity out of tactical echelons and putting it where it can be maintained effectively with more resources in a less contested environment.
Of significant importance, the Army plans to use future LEO and MEO solutions to support Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2)—a major effort that will leverage capabilities across all domains and mission partners to achieve battlefield advantage. In support of JADC2, the Army plans to deliver network transport and data management solutions to enable the flow of critical situational awareness and sensor data, and thus connect sensors (such as aircraft, radar and Soldier-wearable devices) to shooter (the weapon systems that attack targets) all the way down to the dismounted Soldier. New LEO and MEO systems could deliver the needed improvements in network latency, capacity and resiliency to enable the convergence of mission command, fires, sustainment and intelligence data, and to push all of that aggregated data from the Army’s common operating environment to the JADC2 network.
As part of its network modernization strategy, the Army is delivering phased capability enhancements on a two-year basis, beginning with Capability Set 21 in fiscal year 2021 to select infantry formations, and then including Stryker and armored formations beginning with Capability Set 23 and beyond. The Army will build on lessons learned from the development and fielding of each capability set, including work being done with new and evolving satellite capabilities.
The Army plans to leverage a mix of multiple military and commercial satellite constellations to support its overall satellite network communications architecture. The service will continue to leverage GEO satellites currently in use, and add capability to leverage emerging constellations. These include commercial LEO and MEO mega-constellations; commercial high-throughput satellites; and the extremely resilient Protected Tactical Satellite communications military GEO satellite system in development by the Air Force.
This kind of diversity through multiple signal paths provides desirable network redundancy; however, it also increases overall network complexity. Research and development investments, as well as engagements with industry, are underway to address these and other challenges. Considerations could include the exploration of new processes and business methods, such as following a managed service model.
While the Army will leverage spacecraft developed by other government agencies and commercial providers—and not build its own satellite communications space network—challenges exist with the integration of the satellite communications components into the terrestrial network, as well as providing the ground antennas that could support ruggedized on-the-move network capabilities. Just how to integrate some of these solutions with Soldiers and onto platforms is being explored.
The Army’s multi-constellation strategy will require different ground terminals and eventually integrated multifunctional ground terminals. Today, each GEO, MEO and LEO solution requires its own dedicated antenna, which increases size, weight and power requirements. The Army is exploring integrated terminals that support multi-orbits and frequency bands, while leveraging the significant component cost reduction that is anticipated as a result of the commercial deployments. Initially, for Capability Set 23, the Army envisions using a single frequency-band ground terminal supporting one specific constellation. Integrated terminals capable of supporting multiple bands and constellations will eventually be developed for future capability sets.
The Army’s initial experimentation is focused on testing commercial services while evaluating various ground antenna solutions. In January 2020, PEO C3T, the Network CFT and the CCDC team concluded the initial phases of MEO testing at the C5ISR Center’s Joint Satellite Communications Engineering Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. The experimentation characterized current emerging MEO capability to see how the Army’s tactical network performed over the commercial MEO constellation, and it provided MEO constellation and terminal solution performance data and lessons learned to help inform capability set design decisions. Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, MEO testing efforts were temporarily put on hold and will resume when Army leadership delivers that guidance.
The CCDC C5ISR Center is leading and pulling together the LEO test and experimentation efforts, with PEO C3T and the Network CFT monitoring these efforts as they evolve. The focus is on understanding technical operation and system requirements of specific LEO mega-constellation systems and analyzing ground terminal technology. CCDC C5ISR is working numerous LEO cooperative research and development agreements, known as CRADAs, with multiple companies to test their services and antennas. Experimentation time frames will be driven by terminal availability and constellation coverage. CCDC C5ISR has also partnered with the Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office to award experimentation contracts for emerging ground terminals operating over LEO, MEO and GEO constellations.
Winning tomorrow’s wars against peer and near-peer adversaries requires U.S. forces to stay ahead in the technology race. Innovations in artificial intelligence, cloud computing and networking on-the-move will require significant enhancements in satellite communications transport, which could be realized through LEO, MEO and high-throughput GEO satellite systems. Smart planning and forward thinking will be essential to ensuring mission success on tomorrow’s multidomain battlefield.
JOHN ANGLIN is the Technical Management Division chief for Project Manager Tactical Network within PEO C3T. He has over 20 years of experience, as both a civilian and a Soldier, in Army tactical network communications. He has an M.S. in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins University and a B.S. in information technology concentration from Colorado Technical University. He is a member of the Army Acquisition Corps (AAC) and is Level III certified in engineering.
SETH SPOENLEIN is the senior scientific technical manager for Integrated Networks within the U.S. Army Futures Command CCDC C5ISR Center. He is the senior technical adviser supporting the Network Cross-Functional Team. He holds a Master of Engineering in systems engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology and a B.S. in computer engineering from Lehigh University. He is a member of the AAC and is Level III certified in engineering.
AMY WALKER has been the public affairs lead at Project Manager (PM) Tactical Network for the last 10 years, and was the public affairs lead at PEO C3T for the previous two. She has covered a majority of the Army’s major tactical network transport modernization efforts, including Army, joint and coalition fielding and training events worldwide. She holds a B.A. in psychology, with emphasis in marketing and English, from the College of New Jersey.
This article is published in the Summer 2020 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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