Army eyes commercial megaconstellations to support its future battlefield network
WASHINGTON — Under the latest Army plan to equip forces with reliable and super fast communications, officials see an opportunity to buy commercial broadband services from constellations in low and medium orbits.
The Army currently uses a mix of commercial and government-provided bandwidth from satellites in geosynchronous orbit. But the connectivity from those satellites is expensive and likely to be insufficient to meet the Army’s future needs for combat operations, said Maj. Gen. Peter Gallagher, director of the Army Futures Command’s Network Cross Functional Team.
Speaking Oct. 15 at a news conference during the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference, Gallagher said the goal is to provide soldiers with multiple options to get bandwidth in the field, including both satellite-based and terrestrial communications. He said the Army will seek alternatives to current satellite communications provided by GEO systems.
The problem today is both insufficient capacity and high latency in satellite links, said Gallagher.
Gallagher previously ran communications and information systems at U.S. Central Command and saw first-hand the difficulties that forces in the field experience because of inadequate connectivity.
“There’s a heavy reliance on commercial satcom and a good mix of military and commercial satellites,” he said. “Almost everything we do to connect our formations has been with geosynchronous satellites. And the cost of commercial satcom is pretty significant.”
As head of the Futures Command’s network team, Gallagher has to provide guidance to Army leaders on what investments are needed to prepare for future conflicts. He said one of the most obvious needs will be a high capacity, low latency network to support high-speed transmissions of massive amounts of data. Even if supplemented with terrestrial options, he said, “satellite as we know it today is not enough capacity for us to do large scale operations.”
The Army has heard pitches from companies that promise faster and cheaper broadband to be provided by huge constellations in low and medium orbits. So far the Army likes what it’s hearing, Gallagher said, without mentioning any specific company. “We are exploring LEO and MEO constellations. We are finding we can get significantly more throughput, more bandwidth, more capacity of your transport pipe with lower latency, so the data will flow much faster from end to end. That is one part of a multi-path solution we’re trying to provide.”
The officer in charge of procuring network equipment, Maj. Gen. David Bassett, said the Army intends to buy systems incrementally, so networks can be updated every two years as companies introduce new features. The Army’s 82nd Airborne Division will be the first unit to get the new network in 2021.
Past Army efforts to acquire modern communications networks failed because they took years and the technology was outdated by the time it was delivered to forces in the field. The Army does not want to repeat that mistake, said Bassett.
As soon as broadband companies start deploying satellites, the Army wants to begin testing their services and figure out if providers can meet its needs. “Companies are emerging,” Bassett said. “We think that by 2023 some of those commercial constellations will give us new options. We think we can look at things like managed services, a blend of capabilities that don’t exist today.”
The intent is to sign “cooperative R&D agreements” with companies to test their services and antennas, said Bassett. “A big change for the 2021 network is that we will have a higher density network with small satellite dishes in a brigade formation,” he said. Whereas a brigade today might deploy with 11 satellite dishes, in the future it might have 40. “That gives us the option to contract for more commercial capacity.”
The Army also will be working with the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency, which plans to develop a large communications constellation in LEO known as a “transport layer.” An Army spokesman told SpaceNews that the service has communicated its satellite communications needs to the SDA.
An SDA spokesperson said in a statement to SpaceNews that the agency is “working in close coordination with the military services to ensure warfighters receive the future capabilities they need in the shortest timeline possible while avoiding duplication of effort.”