WASHINGTON — The 2022 National Defense Authorization Act passed by the House Dec. 7 and sent to the Senate directs the Pentagon to brief lawmakers on military use of commercial satellite communications services, specifically those from non-geostationary orbit satellites.

The provision is in response to a growing demand in the U.S. military for high-speed internet aboard Navy ships and other locations where there is no terrestrial telecom and satellite signals are the only option available. 

Satellites in non-geostationary orbits, such as medium Earth orbits (MEO) and low Earth orbits (LEO) are at much lower altitudes than traditional GEO satellites stationed 36,000 kilometers above the equator. Satellite networks in MEO and LEO provide low-latency communications services, including high-speed internet.

The NDAA requires the secretary of defense to submit to congressional defense committees a “report on current commercial satellite communication initiatives, including with respect to new non-geostationary orbit satellite technologies that the Department of Defense has employed to increase satellite communication throughput to existing platforms of the military departments currently constrained by legacy capabilities.”

The provision was originally an amendment introduced by Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), vice ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee and the ranking member on the seapower and projection forces subcommittee.

Wittman became concerned that the U.S. Navy does not provide sufficient connectivity aboard ships, making it difficult for sailors and marines to video chat with their families or take online courses while on deployments. The situation came to a head during the covid pandemic when crews could not make port calls and had to remain aboard ships sometimes for more than a year, driving up the demand for internet connections. 

Satellite communications provider SES — which operates the O3b MEO satellite network — was a major advocate for this amendment, a company spokesman told SpaceNews. SES executives in an article titled “Billion-dollar ships with no sailors – why the Navy needs to prioritize connectivity” questioned why Navy ships lack high-speed internet at a time when commercial satellite companies are increasing capacity and services for mobile users.

The spokesman said SES worked with Wittman’s seapower subcommittee on the amendment, which started out as a Navy-focused provision but was later revised to include satcom for all DoD. 

Over the past year, the Navy has used two SES O3b terminals to provide MEO wi-fi for carrier strike group during deployments. The Navy traditionally has relied on Inmarsat GEO satellite services but SES and other non-GEO providers such as OneWeb have made the case that the military should buy a mix of satcom capabilities in multiple orbits and frequencies. The Space Force organization that oversees military satcom procurement, the Commercial Satellite Communications Office, is considering options to buy services from emerging LEO and MEO providers but DoD primarily continues to rely on GEO satellites.

According to the NDAA, DoD in its report to Congress has to include the following:

  • A potential investment strategy on how to operationalize commercial satellite communication capabilities using non-geostationary orbit satellites across each of the military departments.
  • Requisite funding required to adequately prioritize and accelerate the integration of such capabilities into warfighting systems.
  • Future-year spending projections for such efforts.
  • An integrated satellite communications reference architecture roadmap for the Department of Defense to achieve a resilient, secure network for operationalizing commercial satellite communication capabilities, including through the use of non-geostationary orbit satellites. The network has to be capable of leveraging multi-band and multi-orbit architectures, including requirements that enable maximum use of commercially available technologies.

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...