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Preventing bottlenecks across the data battlespace

As military communications become ever more reliant on vast amounts of data, ViaSat president for government systems Ken Peterman argues that private sector SATCOM systems could help increase the military’s capacity to collect, analyse and use tactical data.

/  Image courtesy of ViaSat

The critically important function of ‘understand’ is at the heart of command. Comprehensive information, uncorrupted and secure, is vital to this function. The ‘act’ function also demands that information and direction goes to the right people without delay. Both functions need networks to enable them.

Allied networks are already under continual, sophisticated and ruthless attack, aiming to steal, corrupt and destroy information. The philosophy of PACE (the designation of primary, alternative, contingency and emergency networks) must inform allied network architects. At the heart of PACE is the need for comprehensive alternatives to the government-owned networks on which the military have traditionally depended. Key to this is the advent of comprehensive commercial broadband satellite communications networks, which offer a degree of resilience never before enjoyed by allied forces.

The modern battlespace is more data-intensive than ever. At one end, personnel and vehicles have increasingly sophisticated methods of capturing and storing increasingly complex data. At the other end, tactical and strategic operations centers must analyse the information and disseminate relevant, actionable intelligence to deployed forces at the tactical edge quickly and securely. Data and access to information allows warfighters to communicate and stay abreast of battlespace dynamics in real time.

As this battlespace continues to become more fluid, with far more information available than ever before, ubiquitous connectivity is the critical enabler to ensuring warfighter plans and tactics can evolve in real time to exploit emergent opportunities while keeping our warfighters safe. The question is, how will this ubiquitous, assured, secure broadband connectivity be established?

Data at the tactical edge and at headquarters

There is an enormous amount of data being recorded and stored across the battlespace. For instance, an armored vehicle can now record and store over six terabytes of situational awareness data. Indeed, a contemporary military platform such as an armored vehicle or an F-35 aircraft could be regarded as a collection of IP addresses moving in close formation.

When combined with data from other vehicles and personnel operating at the tactical edge, this represents a vast repository of information, all of which may prove to be critical in an evolving situation. This goes beyond relatively simple data, such as the position and status of vehicles and individuals, although this type of data remains just as important as it has ever been.

Today’s more complex data includes the ability to share live, high-quality video with other forces could be critical in circumstances such as identifying potentially hostile positions and safely guiding search and rescue and medical forces to where they are needed most.

“In an ideal world, data collected across the battlespace would be shared, analysed, and acted on immediately as needed.”

At the same time, there is more information available at higher echelons, which can also be of huge value if used and shared securely in real time. The demands on commanders are huge, arising from links to other government departments, allies, NGOs and in-country authorities.

Operations centres receive data from across the entire operational theater which must be collated, analysed and shared as appropriate. Data requirements aren’t limited to fixed headquarters, though; mobile command centres must also be able to access data and information in a number of types and formats, such as live, high-definition video and sensor data, in order to direct forces in combat situations.

In an ideal world, data collected across the battlespace would be shared, analysed, and acted on immediately as needed. For instance, an armored vehicle could provide live video of a battlefield to command units, which could combine this with live telematics data from vehicles and personnel, as well as satellite and reconnaissance imaging to create the most accurate, live view of the battlespace as possible. By analysing this in real-time, command units can then identify potential threats or necessary actions and direct forces as appropriate, supporting that with the relevant information such as live video to guide them.

Enabling the future: battlespace omniscience

The single greatest issue preventing this from becoming everyday reality is the lack of ubiquitous, assured, secure broadband connectivity with sufficient network speed and capacity to meet the warfighter demand for information at the speed of relevance. Quite simply, the amount of data on the modern battlespace demands a high-capacity, high-speed connection in order to share the vast amount of data and information effectively. Sharing high-definition video illustrates this need perfectly.

In the consumer world, some streaming services recommend a connectivity speed higher than what today’s military networks are capable of in order to stream HD content. When taken in a warfighter context, the need to combine feeds from multiple sources, streaming live in both directions, the need for speed becomes exponentially larger.

“Until now, satellite communications have not been associated with high speeds or high capacity, but that is rapidly changing.”

It isn’t just speed that matters, though; the connection must be large enough to provide enough space for all those bits and bytes of information. In this case, it becomes clear that the speed and capacity of the connection will be crucial – especially to achieve the ultimate goal of continual warfighter battlespace omniscience at the tactical edge.

This presents a challenge to militaries everywhere, because it is just not feasible to connect every individual and vehicle to an existing fibre, wireless or mobile network. There simply isn’t enough bandwidth available, and even if there were, would that connection be secure? Speed, capacity and security are all problems that must be dealt with when connecting warfighters on the battlefield.

One possible solution to these problems is assured, secure satellite communications, which is available nearly anywhere at any time. Until now, satellite communications have not been associated with high speeds or high capacity, but that is rapidly changing.

The potential of private sector SATCOM for military users

Ultimately, the only solution to improve the network speed and capacity bottleneck is a wider neck. This means militaries need access to a truly high-capacity satellite signal – one that can carry gigabytes, and soon terabytes, of data and that provides speeds similar to, if not faster than, fixed-line broadband. The perfect solution would be a dedicated, high-capacity satellite capability that can be positioned wherever it is needed to ensure that all forces in theatre have access to the capacity they need at all times.

However, this solution is not easy to attain. Today’s military and government satellite communications networks are designed around an older paradigm of supporting a relatively small number of existing assets and lack the capability to support near-future large distributed user groups. Existing satellites simply don’t support the speed and capacity required for continual warfighter battlespace omniscience at the tactical edge.

Furthermore, purpose-built government systems often take up to ten years to acquire, develop and deploy, and are very difficult and expensive to modify and upgrade once deployed, so the time to address this issue and ‘fix the pipes’ is long.

“Existing satellites simply don’t support the speed and capacity required for continual warfighter battlespace omniscience at the tactical edge.”

As a potential alternative, private sector satellite providers are constantly increasing both the coverage, capacity, cybersecurity and speed of their services. With this increase in capacity comes a corresponding fall in costs.

Since 2010, private sector satellite communications (SATCOM) service providers have invested significant capital to harden their satellites and networks against scintillation, electromagnetic interference and cyber threats to secure their C2 up/down links, to reduce single points of failure in teleport and ground infrastructure, and to automate their operations, maintenance and cybersecurity processes. These investments have led to exponentially improved hardening, security and operating concepts based on advancing threats to their business and operations models.

Compared to the timeline for purpose-built government systems, private sector satellite communication systems can be conceived from scratch and deployed in less than five years, and employ flexible architectures and DevOps concepts that allow for rapid modifications, upgrades, and near-instantaneous response to security concerns.

“Core sovereign SATCOM can be accommodated either in bespoke systems, hosted payloads or bespoke secure architectures, supplemented by comprehensive commercial services.”

Once the military identifies a trustworthy partner or network of partners that can provide services, it can ensure that military personnel have access to the communications capacity they need at all times. Core sovereign SATCOM can be accommodated either in bespoke systems, hosted payloads or bespoke secure architectures, supplemented by comprehensive commercial services.

The private sector can also offer fully integrated service plans that deliver assured, secure performance levels and provide increased mission effectiveness and improved concepts of operation across the operational environment, including emerging warfighter environment contested by radio frequency jamming and cyber threat vectors.

These fully integrated SATCOM services can deliver more capacity, performance, security and resiliency than ever before to support current and planned user needs and are easily scalable to support increasingly large number of user terminals and growing data requirements. Private sector SATCOM can remove the bottleneck and provide the increased capacity, speed, resiliency and security that today’s global military forces require.