Military Satellite Communications | Panel Ties U.S. Troop Rotations to Satellite Interference Spikes

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WASHINGTON — Satellite telecommunications industry officials have long said improved customer training would greatly reduce incidental radio frequency interference, but experts at a panel discussion here June 17 singled out one group in particular as needing more instruction: the U.S. government, and more specifically, the military.

According to these experts, U.S. troop rotations in Iraq and Afghanistan have corresponded with spikes in incidents of satellite interference in recent years. The spikes occurred because the fresh troops were not properly trained in the installation and use of satellite telecommunications equipment, the panelists said.

At one time, Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan was “one of the most jammed places on Earth,” quipped John Sheldon, a fellow at the Marshall Institute, a think tank here.

While the problem is not exclusive to American troops, it has been especially noticeable with that customer group, said Steven Smith, senior manager of operations support at satellite operator SES of Luxembourg. The U.S. military relies on commercial satellites for most of its satellite communications needs and consequently is the global industry’s biggest single customer.

Participants in the panel discussion also said there has been a sharp rise in intentional satellite jamming in recent years but that this represents a minuscule portion — less than 1 percent — of all interference. The panel was organized by the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to space sustainability.

Unchecked, interference can lead to poor quality of service, a poor public perception of satellites and lost revenue for companies, Smith said. While there is no magic solution, the problem can be managed through vigilance among both operators and users of telecommunications satellites, the panelists said. 

The panelists said the overwhelming majority of interference cases are caused by human error, a lack of training, poorly installed equipment or equipment failure. 

In addition to better training, the panelists recommended wide-scale adoption of carrier ID systems to help identify user transmissions, and improved data sharing among satellite operators. Carrier ID is a digital identification stamp that customers place on their transmissions, as was done during the 2012 Olympics, and can aid in the difficult task of identifying unintentional interference.

Several panelists also espoused the value of greater sharing of data and pointed to the Space Data Association, a cooperative of satellite operators including Intelsat of Washington and Luxembourg, Inmarsat of London, and SES. By providing precise satellite location and configuration data, operators would have an easier time locating an interfering signal, panelists said.

But on the subject of intentional jamming, the speakers had fewer answers.

“Deliberate jamming is increasing dramatically,” said Ram Jakhu, associate professor for the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University in Montreal.

Jakhu pointed to spikes in deliberate interference during the political unrest in 2011 known as the Arab Spring and said an overwhelming percentage of intentional jamming is politically motivated — aimed, for example, at preventing an enemy from disseminating information. Much of the recent intentional jamming, he said, comes from Iran and Syria.

Jakhu cited expensive and experimental anti-jamming solutions, like those being used by commercial satellite fleet operator Eutelsat of Paris, as one way around the problem.

Sheldon said he expects intentional jamming incidents to become more frequent, but warned that the U.S. military must walk a fine line in how it confronts perpetrators, even through public shaming, particularly if it engages in interference of its own. The U.S. Air Force has in fact developed a counter communications system that is intended to jam enemy satellite transmissions.

The intentional interference problem is not unique to communications satellite services, the panelists said. Navigation signals from GPS satellites have been increasingly targeted in recent years using crude jamming devices that have become popular among teens and others who want to hide from prying eyes.

These relatively inexpensive devices can inadvertently disrupt emergency services or even nearby airports that rely on GPS navigation signals, said Karl Kensinger, associate chief in the satellite division of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s International Bureau. 

“It’s very critical these signals not be jammed,” he said. “It’s going to continue to be a focus of enforcement.”