U.S. Air Force officials met in February with SpaceX founder Elon Musk and President Gwynne Shotwell at the company’s headquarters. Among the topics discussed was future Air Force use of SpaceX’s Starlink broadband services. Credit: Air Force Air Combat Command

WASHINGTON — The megaconstellations that promise to bring cheap broadband to the masses have drawn the military’s attention. Commercial space internet provided by hundreds or thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit will become a reality in the next few years, and the Pentagon already is trying to figure out how it will buy and use these services.

Laying the groundwork for the military’s future use of LEO broadband is a small office located at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. The Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation office in December awarded SpaceX a $28 million contract to test over the next three years different ways in which the military might use the company’s Starlink broadband services.

Greg Spanjers is the chief scientist at the Air Force’s experimentation office and oversees a program called Global Lightning that is “trying to determine to what extent, and where it makes sense, for the Air Force to use emerging commercial space internet as another option for communications,” he said in an interview with SpaceNews.

SpaceX received the largest Air Force contract so far of any of the LEO broadband companies under the so-called “Defense Experimentation Using the Commercial Space Internet” program. Iridium got $2.5 million. And more contracts are coming as other constellations get built, Spanjers said. OneWeb on Wednesday launched its first six satellites. Telesat a year ago put up its first LEO broadband satellite.

“We talk to all these companies,” he said. “Anyone that is supplying capability, we want to test with them and determine how it fits for the Air Force.”

Spanjers’ office is relatively new and different from a traditional Air Force procurement shop. It was stood up in May 2016 specifically to take commercial products and test them in field experiments. The idea is to grab promising technology and make it available to users much faster than is typically the case with military programs. This office of about 30 people is part of the Air Force Research Laboratory but works directly with Air Force and Defense Department leaders at the Pentagon. In fiscal year 2019 it received $216 million, most of which Congress requires that it be spent on experiments and prototypes. One of the most recent projects led by this office was a “light attack” demonstration that tested commercially available tactical aircraft for use in combat missions.

Low-cost internet access from LEO constellations is one of the products that the Air Force wants to be able to acquire and use as soon as possible, said Spanjers. Today the military relies on a mix of geostationary commercial and military satellites. The megaconstellations would have hundreds or thousands of small satellites orbiting the planet at lower altitudes.

“Commercial space is hot and heavy, building LEO systems for a space internet. Of course we want to be ready to use it,” he said. “We’re ready to issue them contracts to test with them as soon as they start launching spacecraft. We’re not waiting fro them to have a full capability and then start the whole process. We have the funding and the vehicles in place to do it now.”

Brian Beal, program manager of Global Lightning, said the Air Force already has tested the performance of SpaceX’s first two Starlink satellites Tintin A and B. “We were very happy with the results,” he said. Basic tests even with just two satellites helps the military understand the system and consider what could be done in the future when the constellation is completed.

“As the commercial world expands and starts to roll out their full constellations, we’re informed and in a good position to make smart decisions,” Beal said.

Spanjers said it is notoriously difficult to bring new systems into military communications architectures and it will take some “noodling” to get one side to talk to the other. So these experiments need to get done sooner rather than later, he said. “It helps a lot future decision makers if we can go in and, no kidding, put this into hardware testing and see what it takes to hook up to and make sure we can get the interfaces to work.”

The Air Force expects to be one of many customers of commercial LEO broadband services but wants to be an “early adopter,” Spanjers said. “Comms is key to everything. All of our platforms suffer from needing more comms,” he said. “Right off the bat we have the potential to save a lot of money and have much higher bandwidth. For them to succeed they have to have a much lower cost point than what we’ve seen from satcom services in the past.”

One issue that is being investigated is how the military’s ground equipment would have to be modified. “Frankly what I find interesting is that these companies are talking about coming down to your private home and people having their own antennas,” Spanjers said. “Ground equipment is part of the experiments we’ll do,” he explained. “We can take the vendor’s ground equipment and put DoD encryption systems on the back end and interface it into our systems. Or we can look at building integrated units and see how complex it is in each case.” L-3 received a $5.6 million contract to help assess military terminals.

The Air Force calculated that if all the megaconstellations that are currently in the works reach their projected size, it will only use a tiny fraction of their available bandwidth. “We’ve done rough numbers,” Spanjers said. “If they build out what they say they’ll build, I think we’ll lease a few single percentages of their total capacity,” he said. “We have to be smart on how we’re going to do it. We think we’ll be an important customer but to think we’re going to dominate this industry and develop our own capability is ridiculous.”

It would be foolish for DoD to invest in military-owned satellites if it can access these services, he said. LEO broadband systems will be “way larger than anything we could ever justify building for solely Air Force or even DoD use.”

The Air Force is now “waiting for commercial to catch up” to the military demand, he said. “That sounds terrible. But we’re ready and waiting for them to get the systems up and in place.”

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...