Effective communication on the battlefield has always been an integral part of military operations and a critical piece of mission success.
Today, this means having secure communications anywhere in the world, no matter how remote and inaccessible the location.
Soldiers in the 21st century are primarily communications-based, in order to stay connected in a network on the battlefield and ultimately ensure mission success.
With the advent of new technological developments in the last decade, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) solutions, reliance on networked communications, both visual and audio, is increasing significantly.
The need for greater network capabilities translates into a growing reliance on satellite communications (SATCOM). This point is particularly important for the USA, as its armed forces are deployed all over the world and often in areas with little or no communications infrastructure.
To give you an idea, in terms of expenditure, the US accounts for almost 50% of the total global investment in SATCOM military equipment.
The consolidation of more advanced engineering has led to an increase in the amount of data generated. UAVs, for example, can collect huge amounts of information that are sent in real time constantly during the operational period.
But this comes at a price. The significant increase in data means that bandwidth consumption on military satellites is skyrocketing, often leading to the collapse of communications due to demand far in excess of currently available capacity.
As a result, bandwidth is becoming a precious commodity and, for soldiers, current access to SATCOM is not always guaranteed.
Both the military and governments, particularly in the West, are looking for ways to alleviate the excessive demand for military satellites.
With increasingly tight budgets, the private sector is being called upon to supplement the necessary capacity through the use of commercial satellites to provide non-critical communications. This frees up capacity and ensures that military satellites can be accessed only for critical operations.
It was estimated that the US Department of Defense (DoD) spent $640 million of a $1.6 billion budget for SATCOM on commercial satellite services, or nearly 40% of the total budget.
The Defense Information Systems Agency, the Defense Department’s lead agency responsible for government communications, predicted that the cost of commercial satellites could rise to $5 billion over the next 15 years.
The commercial satellite sector has expanded rapidly in recent years, thanks mainly to a growing market for satellite television and high-definition broadcasting around the world.
To meet this demand, commercial companies can now develop, build and launch a satellite in three or four years at most. For the military, this process can range from 5 to 15 years.
Satellite companies can make profits by selling capacity to television broadcasters and telecommunications companies, usually on long-term contracts lasting five to ten years.
The US military, by contrast, only leases capacity for one year and can even purchase bandwidth for a few months (known as “spot-market”), which is clearly the most expensive option.
In a report this year by the US Defense Business Board, they analyzed the issue in question, warning that this could lead to higher costs in the future. Another side effect of this situation is the unwillingness of the commercial sector (because of higher costs for the manufacturer and the end user) to invest in effective security measures for their SATCOM systems.
Most civil companies and broadcasters do not need advanced security for their SATCOM needs, and are not willing to pay the additional rental costs to cover their implementation.
Recent events have shown that commercial satellites can be compromised.
For example, the Qatar news channel Al-Jazeera accused Egypt of causing interference on the ArabSat satellite by causing problems on its channel. Interference, both intentional and unintentional, can significantly jeopardize communications, which in a military scenario could cost lives.
A satellite’s downlink, i.e. communications transmitted from the satellite to the ground, would also be at risk of interception, meaning that sensitive data could end up in the wrong hands.
Communications satellite orbiting
There are a variety of different ways to mitigate this type of interference or blockage. For example, by cancelling beams and frequency switching, changing the frequency itself, reducing the data rate, assigning full power and bandwidth to critical communications, as well as performing frequency hopping and spread spectrum techniques.
In addition, if the communications of an UAV or other valuable asset is not carried out via a single satellite or communications route, but via multiple redundant, fully available communications channels, it would ensure that in the event of the loss of a particular channel, the asset would not be left without communication links.
BAE Systems and EADS Astrium engineers have recently helped develop a secure communications corridor via commercial satellites using Ka-band frequencies. The use of Ka-band, a normally uncongested frequency, creates capacity and enables the transfer of large amounts of data at high speeds.
This will allow a government or military to take advantage of commercial capacity availability, while ensuring maximum security for mission-critical operations.
Any type of activity requiring a satellite communications link can benefit from the use of Ka-band. Aircraft, in particular UAVs, can benefit greatly from this technology, as can ground facilities, ground vehicles and surface vessels.
As a result, commercial satellite operators are understanding the importance of security for both governments and armies. Many companies see security and the growing need for bandwidth as a key selling point, and new market opportunities are emerging that will generate further advances in the field of telecommunications engineering.
Satellite communication with a UAV
However, increasing capacity may not always be an option, so commercial companies are also looking for ways to increase bandwidth efficiency for SATCOM users.
To do this, using recent technologies such as the HX System from Hughes Network engineers, it would be possible to identify where there is the greatest need for bandwidth and recalibrate systems in seconds, rather than weeks as is currently the case in most cases.
While progress in network capabilities continues to be made, the increased technical requirements for communications increasingly dependent on SATCOM in the short term will make bandwidth scarcity issues increasingly important.
The question experts are now asking is whether the commercial sector can really provide all the answers to the government and military needs of the 21st century, characterised by low budgets but growing operational requirements.