Satcom executives see growing military demand for more secure, mobile equipment

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Tom Kirkland of L3Harris: 'What I see is a convergence of communications and electronic warfare'

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. —  The U.S. military is demanding more advanced technologies to protect its tactical communications systems from sophisticated electronic attacks, industry executives said Sept. 9 at the Satellite 2021 conference. 

“It’s become a much more complicated world than we’ve ever had to deal with,” said Karl Fuchs, senior vice president of technology at iDirect Government, a military contractor that provides network management services. 

Fuchs and other executives during a panel discussion said they expect DoD to seek new mobile networking capabilities following the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and a shift in focus to other regions like Eastern Europe and the Pacific Rim. Satellite communications networks will need to be better defended against Chinese and Russian jammers, and equipment like satellite antennas will need to be more compact and harder to detect. 

As networks are shut down in Afghanistan an the Middle East, DoD is focusing on modernization for the future, said Tom Kirkland, vice president and general manager of L3Harris Technologies

“What I see is a convergence of communications and electronic warfare,” he said. Suppliers of communications systems should be working more closely with the electronic warfare community, said Kirkland.

Efforts to deter Russia in Eastern Europe and China in the Pacific are going to drive requirements for future systems, he said. U.S. forces will be more geographically dispersed and will need “more comms on the move,” Kirkland said. “There’s going to be a major need to be highly mobile, we will need a mix of line-of-sight and beyond line-of-sight.” That means the demand for satcom will increase, he added.

One of the challenges operating in the Pacific and Eastern Europe is that U.S. networks are more vulnerable to jamming so equipment has to be easier to move around, Kirkland said. “Customers want low profile solutions.”

Rob Weitendorf, vice president of business development at satellite antenna manufacturer Kymeta, said the Army, Marine Corps and U.S. Special Operations Command are “driving a lot of requirements for low profile, low detection” equipment.

Weitendorf noted that there is no “official program of record for ground mobility satcom on the move” at DoD. A number of projects are being funded by the Army and the Air Force, for example, to adapt commercial satcom technologies for military use.

Dave Provencher, vice president of business development at AvL Technologies, said DoD is predicting more frequent and more damaging cyber and electronic attacks.

“Jamming is a huge issue,” said Provencher. AvL supplies mobile satellite antennas to DoD. 

Deployed units “know they’re going to run into trouble every time,” he said. 

The main concern are so-called peer competitors like Russia and China. But these nations also provide equipment to countries like Iran and others that are using the technology to disrupt U.S. networks. “They can find us, the can jam us, they can detect us,” said Provencher.

The U.S. military of course has the means to hit back, he said, which could result in “mutually assured blindness.”