The U.S. Air Force is funding a new round of experiments with satellite internet providers in an effort to bring connectivity to military aircraft and ground vehicles.

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) in 2023 awarded $250 million worth of contracts to commercial satellite operators and defense contractors for various experiments. These projects are part of the Defense Experimentation Using Commercial Space Internet, or DEUCSI, an AFRL program launched in 2017 to explore the capabilities of commercial space internet constellations — in geosynchronous, medium and low Earth orbits — to connect military platforms with user terminals that can talk to multiple space broadband providers.

The program made news in late 2018 when it awarded SpaceX a $28 million contract to experiment with Starlink, which consisted of just two test satellites in orbit and was soon to be followed by 60 more test satellites by mid-2019. AFRL’s deal was seen as a key endorsement of Starlink’s ambitious plans to become a massive network of internet-beaming satellites.

DEUCSI kept a low profile in recent years, but 2023 saw a surge in activity marked by several major contract awards announced by AFRL:

  • Intelsat in December received a $9 million contract to develop and test a satellite communications terminal capable of operating with multiple commercial space internet constellations in low, medium and geostationary Earth orbits. The terminal has to be lightweight and small to integrate on aircraft platforms.
  • SES Space & Defense in September was awarded a $30 million contract to conduct a series of tests to integrate space broadband services for use cases in the Arctic region and airborne communications.
  • Raytheon won a $36 million contract in June to conduct experiments to communicate with military platforms via multiple commercial space internet constellations in various orbital regimes using common user terminal and hardware elements.
  • Northrop Grumman in June was awarded a $95.4 million contract to design, develop and test three prototype radio terminal configurations that use multiple commercial and military communication systems.
  • L3Harris Technologies in May received an $80.8 million contract to develop and test satellite communications systems capable of operating with multiple commercial space internet constellations operating in low, medium, and geostationary earth orbits. The terminals will be tested in the Arctic environment, on mobile ground vehicles and aboard multiple aircraft.

AFRL, in a solicitation, said DEUCSI is seeking to establish “path agnostic communications” that would allow users to reliably communicate to any location on the globe without explicitly specifying which nodes of a communication network to use.

Achieving these goals is now increasingly possible with commercial services, said AFRL. “This approach differs radically from traditional military satellite communications programs where the government typically dictates, and pays for, every aspect of the program,” the solicitation states.

However, significant experimentation and testing are needed to implement this vision, industry officials said.

“A lot of money is going into the DEUCSI program,” Rick Lober, vice president of defense and government programs at Hughes Network Systems, told SpaceNews.

Hughes, a commercial geostationary satellite operator, is an investor and strategic partner of low Earth orbit satcom operator Eutelsat OneWeb. Hughes and OneWeb, in 2021, won a $3.4 million DEUCSI contract to demonstrate managed LEO satellite communications services to connect military users in the Arctic region to sites around the globe.

Lober said Hughes Network Systems was recently selected for other DEUCSI projects that have yet to be announced.

He credited AFRL for putting resources into hardware demonstrations so military customers can see how these new technologies would perform in real-world scenarios.

Programs like DEUCSI, he said, are important to figure out ways to increase interoperability among networks even though commercial satcom systems are proprietary.

In a perfect world, Lober said, there would be a software-defined modem running the waveforms from several companies on a single board. “That’s probably not going to happen,” he said, due to companies’ reluctance to share proprietary data with competitors.

The next best thing would be to use a standard chassis or box where modems from each satcom provider could be plugged in, Lober said. That approach is being pursued in some DEUCSI experiments and via a U.S. Army program seeking to develop a multi-orbit modem for mobile users that can talk to multiple commercial satellite networks.

This article first appeared in the January 2024 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

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...