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December 8, 2023

Military Satellite Communications: From IDSCS to Space Force and Beyond

With their reliable, secure and global connectivity, satellites have been instrumental in military communications for over half a century. Applications have covered everything from surveillance to operation support, and monitoring personnel to facilitating mobile command centers. A 2022 report revealed that the government and defense sector accounted for a staggering 42% of the $78.22 billion global satellite communication market. Looking ahead, the global military communication market is projected to reach $54.11 billion by 2029, driven by advancing technologies, including the Military Internet of Things (MIoT).

Throughout history, military personnel have relied on secure and dependable channels to transmit vital information across vast distances. Satellites have played a transformative role in revolutionizing military communications, empowering rapid data transfer, real-time intelligence gathering, and precise targeting. To fully grasp the significance and influence of military satellite communications on the defense industry, it’s essential to delve into its evolutionary journey.

Initial Defense Communications Satellite Program (IDCSP)

Official efforts to create a military communications satellite started in 1960 and since then, the United States has relied largely on four different satellite constellations to deliver timely, reliable communications. The Initial Defense Communications Satellite Program (IDCSP) created the Pentagon’s first near-geosynchronous communications system – the Initial Defense Satellite Communication System (IDSCS). The first satellite of this constellation was launched in 1966, and by July 1967 consisted of 19 satellites in total. These satellites enabled the transfer of high-resolution photographs during the Vietnam War, allowing for near real-time battlefield analysis.

Defense Satellite Communications System II (DSCS II) and DSCS III

Subsequently, constellations Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) network holds a significant position within military satellite communications today – welcoming a new era of capabilities and flexibility. First, each WGS satellite offers more SATCOM capacity than the entire DSCS constellation, providing a quantum leap in communications capacity.

Recognizing the system’s potential, in 2012 the WGS network expanded internationally, attracting partner countries including Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and New Zealand. According to Heidi Grant, Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for International Affairs, these collaborations aimed to enhance interoperability, bolster trust, and increase capabilities and capacity for all partners.

The WGS system operates through three principal segments: Space (satellites), Control (operators), and Terminal (users). The space segment consists of 10 cost-effective, high-throughput Ka- and X-band satellites; controlled and managed by the USSF Space Delta 8’s 4th Space Operations Squadron and 53rd Space Operations Squadron. The ground segment boasts thousands of tactical SATCOM terminals. Today the system provides worldwide, high-capacity communications for various government agencies, the Department of Defense (DOD), international partners, and NATO.

The WGS network is a critical part of the US military’s communications infrastructure, but it’s important to note that it is not the only network they use. The US military utilizes a variety of other networks, including the Defense Information Systems Network (DISN) and the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS).

Satellite Military Communications Today: Introducing United States Space Force

The United States Space Force (USSF) was officially established in December 2019, when President Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 into law. With a mission to “secure our Nation’s interests in, from, and to space”, the USSF became the sixth branch of the U.S. military.

The establishment of the United States Space Force had been proposed and discussed for several years prior, with many recognizing the growing importance of space within the larger context of military and national security concerns. Its creation consolidated satellite acquisition, budget and workforce, across more than 60 organizations enabling a more efficient, effective service for space operations.

One of the early successes of the Space Force was its role in providing early warnings of missile strikes against U.S. troops. Most recently, in August 2023, the USSF formed a new combative unit the 75th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Squadron (ISRS). The ISRS unit was formed with a clear mission: targeting adversary satellites, ground stations, and counter-space forces that can disrupt satellite systems during conflicts.

Russia and China, possessing ground-based anti-satellite weaponry, both pose significant threats to the WGS. Additionally, they’re developing a “peaceful” spacecraft, designed to reduce orbital debris. However, this “peaceful” spacecraft could, in theory, dismantle U.S. satellites, siphon fuel, and damage components including antennae and solar panels, raising concerns regarding the true intentions and implications for space security.

The Future of Military Satellite Communications

In the ever-evolving landscape of military satellite communications, the demand for robust and widespread connectivity is surging. As Mike Tierney, industry analyst at Velos puts it – “the one thing that is always needed is more comm… We never have enough comm to get after what we need to do. We need more comm to support the fight.” Notably, the government and defense sector’s increasing reliance on satellite communications, driven by the transformation of operational environments and a growing dependence on sensor data and ISR platforms, further propels this growth. This shift is evident in the escalating demand for High Throughput Satellite (HTS) capacity to meet the evolving requirements of government and military applications.

Charting the Course of Military Satellite Communications

  1. Security: Safeguarding the Final Frontier
  2. The Future Hub of Space Operations
  3. Combination of Commercial and Owned Communications


Security: Safeguarding the Final Frontier

As satellite reliance grows, security becomes not only paramount but also twofold. First, the war in Ukraine underscored satellite systems’ vulnerability to cyber warfare. In February 2022, a cyberattack disrupting Viasat’s satellite communications network was attributed to Russia’s military. Using wiper malware, the attack “bricked” KA-SAT modems across Europe, impacting tens of thousands of users, including Ukraine’s military. With cyber attacks becoming integral to military arsenals, the imperative for a robust defense strategy intensifies.

Second, the physical security of satellites demands attention. China’s pursuit of satellites with on-orbit repair capabilities raises concerns, as some could double as weapons. Similarly, Russia is developing laser weapons to target adversary satellites. DARPA’s (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) robotic arm, set to launch in 2024, aims to repair satellites in geosynchronous orbit and could serve as “bodyguards” against threats. Safeguarding satellites requires a comprehensive approach, addressing both cyber vulnerabilities and physical defense mechanisms.

The Future Hub of Space Operations

Beyond Space Force, plans for a military space station are underway. The Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) is soliciting proposals for an autonomous orbital outpost, laying the foundation for potential human habitation and docking with manned spacecraft. The DIU envisions the outpost supporting diverse functions, from microgravity experimentation to logistics and training. While its primary goal is currently experimentation, the solicitation hints at broader ambitions, including a military presence in geosynchronous orbit.

Combination of commercial and owned communications

The war in Ukraine also highlighted the agility and responsiveness of commercial satellites, particularly in critical infrastructure support and imaging during conflict. Commercial providers like SpaceX’s Starlink played pivotal roles. Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein emphasizes a pragmatic approach: “buy what we can and only build what we must.”

However, in allocating nearly $13 billion over the next five years, the Pentagon signals a continued commitment to the importance of government-owned capabilities. As Mike Tierney from Velos notes: “this budget doesn’t reflect a pivot to a greater adoption of commercial capabilities in lieu of government-owned and operated capabilities.” Suggesting that the delicate balance between security, innovation, and pragmatic resource utilization is steering the future trajectory of military satellite communications.

Need a Defense Communications Solution?

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So if you're looking for reliable and cutting-edge satellite communication solutions tailored to the unique requirements of the defense industry, contact our team today to explore how our solutions can enhance your communication capabilities and contribute to the success of your mission.