WASHINGTON — An experimental Army satellite in recent deployments beamed images from low Earth orbit to commanders on the ground. It gave the service a taste of how it could use satellites in direct support of combat units.

The question officials are now pondering is how to take the concept further and explore broader use of low-cost satellites for tactical applications. With that goal in mind, Army leaders began discussions with the Space Development Agency shortly after the SDA was established in March.

“We believe LEO satellites are important to the Army,” says retired Maj. Gen. John Ferrari, who was recently the Army’s director of program analysis and evaluation, and participated in discussions with the SDA.

Army experiments like the Kestrel Eye remote sensing spacecraft “proved that we can put up a satellite and let a brigade have its own ISR [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance] that it can task, for not a lot of money,” Ferrari tells SpaceNews. “If you can do remote sensing, you can do communications, signals intelligence, perhaps other things. These things are not that expensive.”

The SDA’s intended goals to tap the commercial market for technologies that have military utility echo what the Army has been trying to do, Ferrari says. “SDA was talking about what we like, so we started a conversation.”

The Army is the military’s biggest user of space based assets, Ferrari says. As space becomes more affordable, there are growing opportunities to bring new capabilities to the force. “The Army did Kestrel Eye without spending a lot of money on downlinks, so we know it is possible,” he says, but the challenge is how to transition from experiments to sustainable programs. “The trick is to scale it without encumbering it like a Christmas tree where everyone gets a vote on adding a new capability,” Ferrari says. “Simplicity is what is key.”

Today many Army units use the Iridium LEO satellite communications service. “We want to evolve that model,” Ferrari says. The problem is that “you need an Iridium phone to speak to an Iridium satellite. That chip may or may not work with other LEO constellations.”

Ferrari sees an important place for SDA as an architect of space systems that sets standards so all the military services can use LEO-based services like broadband communications.

Key for the Army is to be able to access satellite networks without having to replace billions of dollars worth of existing user equipment like antennas and receivers. “What’s interesting to the Army about SDA is that they’re talking about building a satellite from the ground up,” he says. “For the Army that’s important.” What the Army would tell the SDA: “If you’re going to put something up, it has to work with this ground equipment. We may not get all the capabilities if we don’t upgrade, but that could be done over time.”

Ferrari believes current user terminals would be updated with computer chips to be compatible with new LEO satellites, but to make this affordable the SDA would have to figure out how DoD can buy them from commercial production lines. “The chips that would be needed are expensive unless you can amortize the cost over thousands of units,” he says.

The next step will be for DoD, the SDA and the Army to make some decisions on how this is going to be funded. Ferrari says there’s window of opportunity to realign budget proposals between now and December in preparation for the fiscal year 2021 submission. The Army needs higher capacity communications systems sooner rather than later, he says. “Bandwidth needs have exploded. We need cloud computing at the edge. Can we continue to put up more of these big and expensive satellites?” he adds. “We’re not betting the farm on LEO. Maybe the business case doesn’t close, but we’re excited because it does offer a missing piece of the puzzle: assured connectivity at lower cost.”

The SDA hosted its first Industry Day July 23 and briefed contractors on a future “national security space architecture” that it would build using LEO satellites, commercial sensors and cloud computing technology. Where it goes from here will depend on funding and political support. The agency from day one came under criticism for duplicating what other organizations are doing, and it drew further scrutiny after the first SDA director left after only four months on the job.

According to one DoD official who commented for this story on condition of anonymity, the Army should be able to acquire LEO services regardless of whether the SDA existed or not. “When the SDA said they would focus on commercial integration it piqued the Army’s interest because the Army has a variety of terminals and a history of using commercial comms,” the official says. “Compatibility and interoperability are a huge issue in the Army. The real issue here is not the Army’s intent, but the question of what SDA is actually going to focus on.”

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...