WASHINGTON — Among the many new products unveiled this week at the Satellite 2023 convention were mobile communications terminals capable of talking to military and commercial satellites. 

Intellian Technologies rolled out a new terminal it developed with the U.S. Navy that provides simultaneous connectivity with commercial Ka-band satellites and with the military Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) constellation used by the U.S. and several allied nations. 

Another manufacturer, All.Space, announced it delivered a new flat panel terminal to satellite operator SES that can simultaneously connect to spacecraft in multiple orbits. SES plans to offer it to both commercial and DoD users. 

Another sector of the industry focused on network management and control systems is working on software that would allow military users to tap into a variety of satcom providers as well as WGS and other military satellites. 

“We’ve been working to enable a hybrid architecture,” said David Meadows, vice president of Network Innovations U.S.

Meadows and other executives at the Satellite 2023 conference said the industry is trying to support DoD’s vision of a seamless military-commercial satcom architecture, an effort that has been underway for several years.

A key project intended to enable a hybrid network is the U.S. Space Force-led Enterprise Management and Control (EM&C) system, which aims to provide military users with flexible satcom options so if one service is interfered with, they can switch to another. 

Meadows’ company Network Innovations is developing a satellite communication service provider registry (SPR) prototype, or a catalog of military and commercial terminals and services to support the EM&C project. 

“Enterprise satcom management and control I think it’s going to be critical as we look to stitch together all the different service provider networks,” Mike Dean, chief of DoD satcom, said March 14 during a panel discussion at the Satellite conference. 

In the latest DoD satcom policy, said Dean, “we try to not make distinction between commercial and military or even international partner services.”

The catalog of terminals and services being developed under the EM&C program is going to provide a “better picture for the operational managers as they manage their capabilities,” said Dean. 

DoD wants to work with a large population of commercial satcom providers, he said. “The more the merrier, it builds resilience,” Dean added. “And the real benefit, at least as I look across the enterprise, is that commercial services are innovating on such a faster cycle than what we can do internally.”

Dean’s office recently published a “reference architecture” to help industry and government program offices figure out how to integrate systems. 

Intellian Technologies exhibit at Satellite 2023. Credit: SpaceNews

Diversity means more complexity

Meadows said hybrid networks benefit the military as they “create disruption for our adversaries in their attempts to impede us or compromise our locations.”

However, “diversity and abundance comes at a cost. And I think that cost is complexity,” he said. The challenge is to use autonomous systems as much as possible to make it simple for users in the field.

Military leaders often remind satcom contractors that the “operators at the tactical edge don’t wear white coats and don’t have PhDs. So we want to be able to enable them to access a multiplicity of satellite services to provide them resilience and redundancy, and deal with congestion with just a couple of mouse clicks.”

Meadows said the EM&C architecture is being designed to interoperate with any commercial provider, but the devil will be in the details.

“We want to enable all potential service providers  … LEO, MEO, GEO, all frequency bands, different waveforms,” and connect systems with current terminals as much as possible, he said. A closed architecture like SpaceX’s Starlink, however, requires using the company’s terminals.

“A key thing that we’ve been looking at is how do we future proof the system design” so new systems can be integrated as they come online, Meadows said.

Satcom managed services

In parallel with the satcom enterprise effort, the U.S. Space Force’s commercial services office is looking to buy so-called satcom as a managed service, an approach preferred by many satellite operators. Under managed satcom services, instead of leasing capacity from commercial satellites, military customers get a guaranteed data rate based on their needs and location. 

Craig Miller, president of satellite operator Viasat Government Systems, said DoD would be better off using managed satcom services in order to take advantage of the latest technology.

“All of the modern networks are operated as managed services versus transponders that are leased,” he said. Services from the newest constellations are provided as managed services “where you don’t buy transponders, you buy bits per second, or you buy a certain data rate,” he said. “And really, that’s a much better value for consumers.”

If the president’s Air Force One buys a managed service with 100 megabits per second, “you always get that data rate. And we guarantee that data rate. But if you don’t use it, it’s not wasted capacity.”

“All the new systems are managed services,” Miller said. “And that’s how DOD needs to learn how to buy.”

He said the Marine Corps and the Army have started pilot programs to evaluate managed satcom services from Viasat and other companies. “So we’re starting to see movement in that direction. And that’s the way of the future for how you buy commercial.”

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...