Hundreds of satellites to give military faster tactical comms and data

by Tommy Grant

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — A space-focused program spreading hundreds of small satellites in low orbit aims to bring clearer communications and faster data transfer in the field to military units, a key to Marine Corps war-fighting needs.

The Space Development Agency, a Pentagon space acquisition organization, already has launched 27 low Earth orbit satellites for experimentation and demonstrations in the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture program, Derek Tournear, Space Development Agency director, said Monday here at the Navy League’s Sea-Air-Space conference.

Low Earth orbit satellites orbit about 1,200 miles above the Earth, compared to medium Earth orbit satellites, which run the Global Positioning System and are placed about 12,550 miles above the Earth.

Later in 2024 the second wave of low Earth orbit satellites will go into orbit, Tournear said. By the end of 2025, the program expects to have 160 satellites in orbit, the majority covering the globe to create connectivity across regions, more than two dozen dedicated to missile warning and a handful running missile control.

Marines and other military branches have relied on satellite communications for decades. But advances in low Earth orbit satellites deliver higher bandwidth and lower latency, or delays, meaning users can send more data faster.

Ukraine has relied heavily on company SpaceX’s commercial satellite Internet constellation Starlink to pass battlefield data throughout its war with Russia. The military version of the system is known as Starshield.

Marines at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, began using the Starshield system recently, according to a March release.

The system allowed Marines to maintain communications services when weather forced power outages that shut down base fiber and cloud cover interfered with other satellite communications, said Maj. Tim Wrenn, 6th Marine Regiment communications officer.

During the September 2023 Archipelago Endeavor exercise, Marines used Starshield with the Swedish marines by mounting the device on a Swedish command and control boat.

“Having high bandwidth, low latency services on a mobile maritime platform allowed U.S. and Swedish Marines to prosecute fire missions and provide reliable and relevant information throughout the battlespace,” said Capt. Quinn T. Hemler, the assistant operations officer with 2nd Marine Division’s G-6 communications.

Marine Maj. Gen. Joseph Matos, commander of Marine Forces Cyber, said that satellite communications such as the Space Development Agency program enable both the crisis response mission of the Marine Corps and its ongoing Force Design changes that aims to better position the service for distributed, long-range operations.

“(Force Design) is really talking about modernization, bringing in new technologies, such as (Proliferated Low Earth Orbit) how do we incorporate that into what we do every day and how we fight,” Matos said.

While missile tracking is crucial, most Marines using the satellites are likely to see improved communication and less down time between transmissions as they pass data in training and operations between various platforms.

The Space Development Agency had demonstrated Link 16 connectivity using its satellites, Marine Corps Times’ sister publication C4ISRNET reported in November 2023.

Link 16 is the tactical data link used by the U.S. military, NATO and other partner nations to share tactical information such as text, voice and imagery.

The Link 16 application uses the “transport layer,” which is one of the layers that the Space Development Agency is developing along with the tracking, custody, navigation, support, emerging capabilities and battle management layers.

Once deployed, the transport layer, which holds most of the program’s satellites, will provide a mesh network of communications satellites that connect to each other and other space vehicles and ground stations, according to the Space Development Agency website.

The next batch of satellites is planned for 2027 and another for 2029, by which time the network is expected to have “full global persistence” and resiliency, Tournear said.

The program seeks to create a hybrid satellite terminal for troops to use. That would allow a user’s terminal to switch between the low Earth orbit satellites transport layer or use dedicated military or commercial bandwidths such as the satellite communication Ka and Ku bands, respectively.

The same terminal could also switch to use the Ka or Ku bands on MEO or GEO satellites.

The system would work much like multiband radios can switch between frequency bands for a variety of communications options.

Matos emphasized that while the low Earth orbit satellites program will give users new ways to communicate it still is only “part of the overall architecture.” If Marines can’t access those satellites for some reason, they need backup ways to conduct operations.

“We don’t own our own space assets,” Matos said. “We use what industry provides. If that’s not there then we have to look at other means of communication, single channel radio, troposphere, those are the systems we can control at the Marine Corps level.”

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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