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Military Satellite Technology

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by Aaron Titus, former U.S. Army, Norsat International

Military satellite technology is constantly evolving, and it is imperative that organizations involved in SATCOM manufacturing, production and integration track the trends, technology and drivers that fuel the military communications sector. A few years ago, enabling simple communications to and from the battlefield or dispatching orders was the extent of MILSATCOM. However, in modern times, it has evolved to a point where it encompasses complex networks including enabling resilience, LEO/MEO/HTS/mega-constellations, payload delivery, ISR capability, MWR (Morale, Welfare, Recreation) and more. Innovations in military communications technology will enable the SATCOM industry to deliver connectivity and bandwidth demanded by future warfighters.

The Rise of Net-Centric Warfare

Figure 1: Military net-centric warfare

Secure, reliable and agile communications will always be the lynchpin of modern MILSATCOM and the key to successful missions. The defense sector is experiencing unparalleled transformation as global governments and militaries move towards a ‘network centric’ approach to their communications (Figure 1). Future military power will not stem from not only the number of soldiers or forward operating bases covered, but will also be driven by advantages in information superiority achieved through advanced technology. Operations in war zones, disaster response and recovery missions and homeland security missions will be driven by an evolution of a system of intelligence sensors, precision weapons, command and control systems, and SATCOM equipment that enable enhanced situational awareness, rapid target assessment, and distributed weapon assignment. The United States Department of Defense already considers the Global Information Grid (GIG) as the key technical framework supporting network-centric operations. Hence, all sensor systems, weapons platforms and command and control centers will be eventually linked via GIG using advanced MILSATCOM equipment.

Figure 2: Military SATCOM

Military is heading towards who has the best intelligence as opposed to who has the best weapons. Hence, satellite organizations need to provide customers with pioneering smart solutions that provide an “intelligence advantage” through next-generation network security and threat mitigation. Having a strong hold on C6ISR technology (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Cyber-Defense and Combat Systems and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) will help strike first in battle by analyzing and acting on data collected through military SATCOM resources (Figure 2). 

Portability

Satellite terminals used by militaries need to be portable, enabling quick deployment. Lightweight and airline transportable solutions which can be set up tool-free by even untrained and inexperienced soldiers is crucial (Figures 3, 4 and 5). Greater mobility supported by instantaneous data-rich communications like video imagery through satellite equipment and networks equip militaries with highest-precision situational awareness. The modern war zone demands live airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, and warfighters are mentally prepared to be deployed at a moment’s notice. Hence, the top demands in the design of satellite communications equipment are reliability, mobility and ease of use backed by ruggedness. Militaries are now looking at multi-band satellite terminals with built-in intelligence to enable greater integration with other forms of communication like radio, LTE, etc. to provide a seamless flow of information and improve ease of use.

Keeping these demands of deployability and intelligence in mind, Norsat has developed military fly-away satellite terminals like the GLOBETrekker 2.0. Its one-touch interface enables easy operation and rapid deployment set up in just 10 steps and can auto-acquire a satellite in less than 5 minutes. Specialized components like the universal LNB allow automated frequency selection for worldwide deployments. Moreover, its modular architecture enables easy sub-assembly replacement and RF band switching in the field. Currently deployed by militaries around the world, the GLOBETrekker 2.0 (Figure 6) includes IP65 compliant sealed equipment for all weather use and digital levelling technology for deployment in uneven terrain. Norsat’s GLOBETrekkers are being used for warfighter comms by 38th Rescue Squadron (38RQS) and 31st Rescue Squadron (31RQS). Defense Media Activity (DMA)) fielded GLOBETrekkers are used for transmission of video broadcast from the field in support of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). The GLOBETrekker is also being used by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NDA) for transmission of imagery to support warfighters in the field. Along with terminals, military customers often look for advanced satellite acquisition technology that is reliable and easy to use. Norsat’s LinkControl 7 software enables complete control of a terminal in one software package, with an interface that is intuitive and responsive to customer needs (Figure 7).

Another change witnessed in the defense sector is acquisition of both military-grade and commercial terminals. Real-time situational analysis of necessities helps to maintain costs and a precise balance of both military and commercial capabilities. MIL-STD and military grade rugged terminals which tend to be expensive can be deployed at red zones and crucial bases while lower-cost robust terminals like Norsat’s WAYFARER Series (Figure 8) can be used for day-to-day operations, regular tasks like Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) or broadcasting. Besides the actual terminals themselves, the cases they are transported in, are very important. Norsat ensures that customers are provided options of IATA compliant cases that are made of special advanced materials that reduce weight, enhance durability and provide weatherproof protection. 

While considering satellite and microwave components, the top military demand is “smaller, lighter, flatter.” Norsat’s ATOM Series of Ku-band GaN and GaAs block upconverters (BUCs) are used in a number of military applications as they are 70% smaller than industry standards and extremely powerful. Norsat has also developed airborne BUCs with extreme form factors and stringent specifications for UAVs. UAVs are going to play an important part in defense strategy as they provide advanced capability to collect critical information remotely through technology, without the loss of human life. 

Norsat product innovations in BUC SWaP (Size, Weight, and Power) have minimized the form factor, reduced weight, and achieved high power output for military applications. For example, Norsat’s ATOM 20W Ku-band BUC is manufactured for SWaP efficiencies and is only 6.5” x 3.2” x 6.1” and weighs an impressive 5 lbs (Figure 9). Norsat has also completed custom form factors similar to a pizza box, to fit specific application low profile and size requirements. Additionally, multi-band LNBs that allow flexible frequency changes are important for military satellite technology. Norsat’s innovative five-band PLL LNBs offer five separate sub-bands for the utmost flexibility, with improved LO stability allowing militaries to reliably receive a narrower band transmission from Ka-band satellite networks.

MIL-STD and WGS Certifications

Over the past two years, the satellite industry has witnessed an increased demand across all sectors of the market — specifically naval SATCOM. Tracking a narrow satellite beam in geosynchronous orbit 35,000 km away from the oceans’ surface while the ship below rolls through storms and seas is not an easy feat. Hence, companies are investing in MILSATCOM products manufactured by specialists in the maritime industry. Moreover, the data transferred by the navy between vessels may be highly classified and critical to their mission so maintaining resilient and secure communications is a necessity.

Naval ships of various classes and sizes like destroyers, corvettes or frigates need to be part of a communications system that supports vast coalition forces and missions like search and rescue, anti-piracy, peacekeeping etc. Norsat’s MarineLink Naval Series is designed to meet the new-age demanding requirements of modern navies as outlined in the following Military Standards:

  • Mechanical Shipboard Vibration: MIL-STD-167-1A
  • High-Impact Shipborne Shock: MIL-STD-901D
  • Military EMI/EMC: MIL-STD-461G

High-quality rigorous and standardized certifications, Norsat is able to provide military customers with high-capacity communications systems like the MarineLink naval series, designed to perform under extreme maritime environments. Additionally, some of the models in the MarineLink COM Series are certified for use on the Military Wideband (WGS), CE0678, Intelsat and Anatel networks. 

The Way Ahead

The future of military satellite technology is headed towards turnkey solutions that will transparently use the best backbone for the situation. This includes satellite and terrestrial-base radio that can integrate with current and future technologies like LEO, MEO, High Throughput Satellites (HTS), communication balloons, etc. 

Over the next decade, Q-band will be on the rise as defense communications systems on mobile satellite uplink platforms like ground-based high-mobility vehicles, drones and aircrafts will require a higher-speed data rate with larger bandwidth for video transmissions from small aperture terminals. They will also require next-gen radar capabilities for ground mapping and visibility through poor weather conditions. Norsat is in the final stages of developing one of the world’s first Q-band LNBs. 

Ultimately, the future of MILSATCOM will depend on our ability to synchronize systems in each domain—air, land, sea, space and cyberspace, so that we have a 360-degree picture of a battlespace to turn data into knowledge, and knowledge into decisions and action.


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