In May 2019, SpaceX launched a constellation of networked satellites known as Starlink. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has been testing commercial space internet services and so far it likes what it sees.

A program known as Defense Experimentation Using the Commercial Space Internet, or DEUCSI, recently tried out SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband services and demonstrated download speeds of 610 megabits per second into the cockpit of a C-12J Huron twin-engine turboprop aircraft.

“That’s a large number,” program manager Brian Beal said Nov. 5 during a conference call with reporters.

Beal said he could not comment on how Starlink’s data throughput compares to other services but said the connectivity is considerably faster than what most Air Force users have today.

“Between SpaceX and other competitors the numbers we can expect are significantly higher than what we were used to in the past,” Beal said.

DEUCSI is run by the Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation office at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. The office had a $216 million budget in fiscal year 2019.

SpaceX received a $28 million contract in December to connect Starlink to military platforms and assess the performance of the service. The DEUCSI program also is testing the Iridium Certus service under a $2.5 million contract.

The plan is to work with multiple satellite communications providers that are building constellations in low Earth orbit, and with services like SES’s O3B that operates a medium Earth orbit (MEO) constellation. “We’re not just focused on any one company,” said Greg Spanjers, the chief scientist at the Air Force’s experimentation office.

“Between direct contract and subcontracts we’ve worked with SpaceX, Iridium, OneWeb, Telesat and O3B,” he said during the conference call.

Spanjers said his office has high expectations after seeing some operators’ business plans. “Companies have given us detailed insight into their constellations and service rollout plans,” he said. These forecasts suggest that the market will be competitive and that DoD could greatly benefit from that, he added.

“I can tell you without question that the numbers we see are significantly lower cost than what DoD pays for satcom today,” Spanjers said, but noted he could not share any specific numbers as the Air Force agreed to not reveal company proprietary information.

The Air Force is waiting for LEO broadband services to come online, said Spanjers. He said his office has been impressed by how fast companies are progressing. “It’s refreshing,” he said. “We’re learning about new ways to do business. The speed of these companies is real. We need to adapt to that.”

Issues still to be worked out

The DEUCSI experiments are not just to prove that a satellite can talk to an airplane, Spanjers said. “There’s nothing new there.”

Assuming the space internet works as promised, the Air Force still has to figure out other issues before it can acquire these services. Some are technical, such as characterization of the network to make sure users trust it. Others are related to the procurement process, setting up service leases and an acquisition plan to get terminals on airplanes.

The DEUCSI program is working with large defense contractors to help solve some of the integration issues associated with bringing commercial networks into military equipment.

L3Harris received a $5.6 million contract to test military ground terminals and make minor modifications so they are compatible with the O3B, Starlink and Telesat services. “We have to determine what changes we need to make on our end if we want to use these systems,” Spanjers said.

Lockheed Martin got a $3.5 million contract to develop a flexible architecture to allow seamless switching between multiple satellite constellations. “We’ll be testing that over the next few years,” Spanjers said. “It’s important to us that we’re not tied to any one vendor.”

Ball Aerospace received a $2.3 million contract, partially funded by the U.S. Army, to test a phased array on a ground vehicle so that a single terminal could be used to communicate with LEO, MEO and GEO satellites.

Upcoming Air Force tests

Beal, the program manager, said the Air Force next week will install a Starlink terminal on an AC-130 gunship aircraft to test the service. Next spring a similar test will be conducted on a KC-135 aerial refueling tanker.

“We are setting up prototypes so we are ready as soon as the commercial offers are ready,” he said.

The Air Force Space Command is responsible for the procurement of commercial satellite communications. The work accomplished by the DEUCSI experiments will be shared with that office, Beal said. “We provide them information to help them prepare for those leases.”

He said a lot of work still remains to be done to modify terminals and ensure there is a process to acquire new terminals if required. Even if the satellite services were available today, the Air Force has not yet addressed user equipment issues. “We’ll see which is the chicken and which is the egg on that,” said Beal. “We’re working both pieces in parallel.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...