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With the INDOPACOM Area of Responsibility spanning 36 countries and more than 50 percent of the world’s total population, it’s a critical region for US national security. But connecting US forces, both while on board ships as well as when deployed on the ground, is a constant challenge. Weather, terrain, infrastructure and geopolitical realities all have an impact on communications.
We spoke with two experts, Chris Kinman, Vice President of Business Development at SES Government Solutions, and Fred Ferares, Director of Defense at Verizon, to get their insights on how LEO and MEO satellite networks can deliver the high-throughput, high-reliability connectivity that’s critical to DoD’s mission.
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Government Technology Insider (GTI): INDOPACOM covers a huge area of the globe and includes allies, trading partners and adversaries and DoD has assigned more than 200 ships and 375,000 personnel to the region. So with all that diversity—geographic, terrain, environmental, cultural—are there common communications challenges that U.S. forces are facing in this region?
Chris Kinman, SES Government Solutions (CK): Oh, absolutely. The wide space, the ocean coverage presents so many challenges. On top of that, the weather, as it changes over the years, is presenting another challenge for such a widely-dispersed military force. So, there’s been quite a bit of a challenge in that area.
Fred Ferares, Verizon (FF): I agree. They’ve got some significant capabilities that are already present within the region, and you look at fixed locations, like the bases, the posts, the camps, and the stations, they’re dealing with challenges for diversity, redundancy, reliability. And there’s a lot of capability, as I said, in the AOR. But when you get to the deployed forces and the contested environments that they may have to operate in, in time of war, bandwidth and redundancy of capability is going to be an enormous challenge that needs to be addressed, especially as we are seeing the evolution of disruptive technologies being pushed to the deployed forces.
GTI: Do these issues limit the kinds of technologies that can actually be used in theater? Are some things just not practical for that sort of deployment?
FF: I think some of these technologies would be practical, but we have to change the mode or the model in which we deliver bandwidth to the deployed forces. So, with the evolution of things like machine-to-machine and AI, various cloud-based services, software-defined networking to deliver all that bandwidth to execute these missions, I think you need reliable communications. But in addition to that, you need compute and storage at the edge.
Just to use Verizon as an example, we have a 5G capability that we’re rolling out in the United States that has intelligent edge networking to take care of offloading that bandwidth back into the core. And I think that the services need to develop a similar model so that they can deliver with a speed of need the data, the processing at the edge, in a low-latency type experience.
This gets back to how you’re going to be able to deliver these new, modern, disruptive technologies. And there are a lot of organizations that are focused on trying to help deliver this. You’ve got folks like DARPA and the various labs that are looking at different communications methodologies, different architectures to deliver these types of capabilities to the warfighter.
GTI: High-throughput, more reliable bandwidth obviously supports in theater warfighting functions like C5ISR, targeting, situational awareness, and ass Fred mentioned, edge computing. What else could the military take advantage of?
CK: As you indicated and Fred talked about with the technology getting better, what we’ve done is looked ahead and tried to leapfrog and determine how we can increase our capabilities. (We’re looking) at the latest technology, the most powerful satellites we can develop in this day and age, to try to figure out how we can actually increase throughput, trying to get all that latency out of the way so that we can do those things down at the tactical edge. Maybe do more computing power, more processing, and more storage locally, rather than relying on some of the cloud trends that are happening right now.
We understand that cloud is important and we could probably service that cloud capability or need with low latency satellites. But we’ve just tried to find the right mix and right solution that will enable that speed to a better technology in the future. So we push the limits with our satellite technology. We’ve got another seven satellites that we want to launch into a Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) in the next couple of years. Once these are launched it will definitely help you know what that need for lower latency, high throughput and better compute capability are at the edge of the battlefield.
FF: As Chris was saying, this ability to provide the low latency experience to the folks that are out there floating around on the oceans, for example, or as the DoD projects its power ashore and you need to bring that capability along with you. I think he’s exactly right that we also need to be able to deploy and support a capability to process at the edge, to store at the edge. And when you’re disconnected, operate at the edge. But then, when we rely upon the communications paths that are available—the satellite architecture that’s being improved every day as we speak—when that connection is restored, that we’re able to reach back to those various command and control nodes and other resources outside the INDOPACOM AOR that can help us affect the DOD’s mission.
CK: Let me add something else related to the new satellite technologies in Medium Earth Orbit (MEO). What that actually provides is additional inherent resiliency and security. The fact that these satellites are actually moving overhead—like a mobile cell phone tower is actually moving overhead—all of that that technology that provides the linkage and the handoff and the network connectivity, that’s all been built-in years in the past, and we’ve been able to deploy that technology with these MEO satellites and provide lower latency (and) more security because they are moving, and provide additional bandwidth because they’re so low to the Earth. And that gives us more frequency space to provide other security measures for the waveform that’s actually provided to these end users that are out in remote areas in the Pacific.
GTI: What about interference with that technology – jamming and direct attacks on satellites? Are these risks greater with Medium Earth Orbit satellites?
CK: No, they’re actually a lot less because, the fact that the satellites are moving overhead, it requires the capability of threat forces to actually track those satellites, and that’s very difficult to do. The beams that are laid down on the Earth are very narrow and they’re very hard to detect because you have to actually be within that beam. The data that’s actually going through these satellite beams are encrypted and may, in fact, be spread using spread spectrum techniques to protect the waveform. So, all those variables contribute to a more secure and reliable sort of inherent anti-jam solution. So, we’re in a really good spot right now with the next generation of satellites.
GTI: When you’re dealing in these austere environments where personnel are widely dispersed, is interference a major issue?
FF: At the core of this is a question of how does the DOD execute its mission: do we use commercial SATCOM capabilities or stick to just military SATCOM capabilities? I think that the DOD should consider some sort of a blended approach in its architecture. My opinion only, not validated by any research here, but I wouldn’t think that an adversary would want to take out the entire satellite architecture that probably supports its own government and economies.
And at the scale that we’re talking about, too, for some sort of countermeasures against satellite communications, some sort of jamming, missiles, or any other type of technology to disable or destroy a satellite orbiting in support of the U.S. forces, when you start having the number of Lower and Middle Earth Orbit satellites that are available—you’ve got companies like SES here and then Amazon and OneWeb and Elon Musk and you name it—there’s a lot of different folks that are talking about adding to that satellite constellation at multiple different levels to support passing data around the planet.
So, I think if we can leverage what’s available and that helps us with our diversity and our redundancy in some sort of a meshed construct, I think the Department of Defense will benefit from that and minimize any risk to taking out pieces/parts/portions of the satellite architecture.
GTI: Any final thoughts?
CK: I’d like to say that I think SES is in a really good spot. We’ve looked at the market, done a lot of analysis. We’ve got over 40 years of experience of being in a satellite market space and we tried to come up with the best solution for our warfighters. So, we’ve been looking really hard about what makes sense for them, what they need, what kind of security they need, resiliency, to include data throughput, high throughput, and how they operate. We’ve looked at all of that and tried to design a network that will provide them with the best capability going forward.
Ob3 mPOWER, Our next generation satellite network—a Medium Earth Orbit satellite network that we’re going to launch in about two years— will have all those capabilities and then some. Any of those needs they have today whether it’s anti-jam, it’s protected wave form, it’s resilient, it’s more of a flexible architecture that allows them to do the things they need to do at the edge of the battlefield using cloud applications if they need it or multiple video streams in real time without any latency. All of those things they need for their applications and their systems are something that we’ve been looking at for many years. So I think SES is really in a good spot and all the partnerships we have with the U.S. DoD are starting to pay off.
FF: In working with partners like SES and others that we have in the region, I think Verizon is also well-positioned and doing what we can to support the INDOPACOM mission, be it a humanitarian assistance/disaster relief capacity when, for example, typhoons take out cable landing stations and we help move around the data and keep it moving throughout the network in the region. We’re partnered with the government on a number of contracts to provide terrestrial and subsea communications paths and connectivity. And it’s important to the mission sets that we talked about here.
But the one thing I want to introduce is that we talk a lot about command and control and the kinetic aspects of what the U.S. Department of Defense does. I want to bring in the human element, in closing. As I served in the Marine Corps for 24 years and I served in the AOR for four and a half years and over a third of my career was actually focused on INDOPACOM. I was the warfighter out there sitting there executing the mission.
But at the end of the day, you needed a little bit of downtime. And I think that we’re going to be able to bring a Morale, Welfare, and Recreation-type capability of just something as simple as watching the Super Bowl to the warfighter in a fighting hole or in the bowels of a ship, with content that’s pushed through agencies like the Defense Media Activity. And it’s this architecture and this approach that’s going to provide the bandwidth and the low latency and the connectivity that will allow folks to execute their mission and then recharge the battery at the end of the day so that they can go and execute it again the next.