Army Begs Industry For Help To Expand Satcom Capacity
AUSA: Army leaders want industry to help develop technologies to simplify the receivers required for access to communications satellites, including commercial broadband mega-constellations in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
“We have a pretty tough problem statement to overcome right now,” says Joe Welch, deputy program executive officer for command, control and communications-tactical (C3-T). C3-T procures and integrates the tactical components of the Army’s networks, one of the Army’s ‘Big Six’ modernization priorities.
“We are highly reliant on satellites in geosynchronous orbit, providing us relatively low bandwidth compared with everything else that exists in the commercial world, and at very high latency,” he told a panel here today.
This poses a number of challenges for the Army. “First and foremost it, affects our resilience,” he said. “These are sort of single points of failure in a system that we don’t really have any backups for in a lot of cases.”
It also drives the size, cost and power requirements for satcom receivers, he said. For example, the dishes needed to talk to GEO-based satellites are in general bigger, and hard to transport. While there are smaller antennas and receivers to be had, they too have downsides. “If we get them smaller,” said Welch, “then we’re paying a price — either using up more capacity on our military WGS capability, or paying for it from commercial providers.”
The Wideband Global SATCOM satellites, built by Boeing, can provide full-motion video in the Ka- and X-bands. There are 10 in the current constellation, and Congress in 2018 added funds for two more despite Air Force plans to stop procurement.
Further, Welch explained, multi-domain operations are underpinned by big data capabilities, including cloud technologies for data storage, and machine learning/artificial intelligence to fuse all the data. Those big data operations are “really not possible when you are trying to suck that all through a soda straw” of limited bandwidth, he said.
“For these reasons, we see the need to expand beyond the communications capabilities that we have today, and we are very excited about emergence of opportunities in LEO and MEO space,” Welch said. The Army also is interested in high throughput technologies for improving GEO satellite capacity, he added.
The Army has been experimenting with small sats to support ground troops, and is also eyeing how it might leverage commercial technologies. “We’re working with a number of commercial providers now trying to understand their roadmaps, and putting together limited experimentation activities as we look toward the right solutions,” he said. “From our perspective we don’t really care who it comes from, if it’s commercial or military … we want to be able to take advantage of all of it.”
This includes, but is not limited to, looking at using of the SpaceX Starlink mega-constellation, Welch told reporters after the panel. If founder Elon Musk has his way, the constellation will eventually balloon to some 30,000 satellites. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell participated in a panel discussion today in the company’s first foray at an AUSA meeting. She told colleague Sandra Erwin afterwards that the firm is discussing Starlink, which currently has 60 satellites on orbit, with the Army.
As a first step, the Army has been experimenting with terminals to link to commercial LEO and MEO satellites, according to Welch. The goal is to develop a prototype terminal by 2023.
Welch said there are other challenges on the ground as the Army tries to expand its satcom architecture, such as integrating multiple satellite signals into the communications systems on vehicles. “We’re interested in science and tech investments and vendor concepts for simplifying the number of satellite transceivers that we put on a vehicle with a command post, so we don’t make this stuff too heavy and too complex,” he said.
This is because, “with more options comes more complexity,” Welch quipped. For example, the receivers will need to be equipped with automated data routing and decision-making about how throughput is channeled — “otherwise we’re just going to overload everything we have; we won’t have efficient use of our resources.”
Rugged, mobile satcoms receivers is another pressing need, Welch said. He noted that while the Army’s Stryker Brigade Combat Teams has some “better than nothing” connectivity, satcom for the armor brigades “is still a big gap for us” and thus a large opportunity for industry to come up with solutions.
Welch asked for industry help solving the myriad, nested comsat problems not once, not twice but at least three times — pointing to the difficulties ahead as the Army tries to resolve the bandwidth conundrum. He said the next opportunity for industry to hear more about Army satcom challenges and capability needs will be at the so-called Technical Exchange meeting in Austin, Texas on Nov. 19 through 21. He encouraged vendors to sign up and bring ideas for discussion.
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