OneWeb and Hughes: expanding the reach of global defence

Hughes is one of OneWeb’s distributors providing global connectivity to defence organisations – how are these industrial partnerships evolving as space becomes more congested and contested? John Hill reports.

A Falcon 9 rocket launches from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Fla., March 9, 2023. OneWeb is a planned satellite constellation carrying micro satellites to provide worldwide internet access for individual consumers and airlines. Credit: US Space Force/Joshua Conti

Today, a force must be able to operate unhindered, anytime and anywhere. This has placed a lot of faith – and therefore time and money – in the space domain as a critical enabler of connectivity. 

At the centre of it all, OneWeb’s 642+ satellite constellation provides Low Earth Orbit (LEO) communications to military consumers including – through one of its distributors, Hughes Network Systems – the US Department of Defense (DoD). 

On 22 August 2023, the DoD selected Hughes to deliver proliferated LEO satellite-based services under a five-year contract worth $900m. Hughes will leverage two constellations for the US military: OneWeb, for which Hughes recently became a distributor in April this year, and the company’s own Echostar Lyra. 

Rick Lober, vice president and general manager of the Defense and Government Systems Division at Hughes, explained to Global Defence Technology that “the [OneWeb] LEO service is nice because it’s kind of ‘plug and play’, you can take the antenna just about anywhere in the world, turn it on and get connectivity.” 

OneWeb will provide the military user “over 100 megabits per second down to an antenna, and maybe 25 [or] 30 megabits per second up, so it would be applicable to high-speed internet offerings and ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] missions, where you’re trying to get a lot of sensor or video data.” 

While the Lyra service is for Internet of Things (IoT) applications – “short messaging, text, voice, those types of things”. This narrowband service, while delivering lower data transmission, requires less operating power requirements, making the service more desirable for applications requiring limited information over relatively shorter distances. 

Echostar Lyra competes with other DoD assets such as MUOS, which is a narrowband service with UHF [ultra-high frequency] delivered by the US defence prime, Lockheed Martin. 

How do Hughes and OneWeb come together?

Space defence is experiencing a major boost as the domain becomes more congested and contested. As a result, industrial, commercial, and military partnerships are forming, just as new technologies enter the market – and all of this is shaping how defence organisations are operating in space.  

“I think, in terms of what Hughes is offering – since OneWeb will only serve as an enterprise service –we’re able to offer service level agreements that will guarantee throughput in particular locations at particular times,” Lober explained.  

We’re able to offer service level agreements that will guarantee throughput in particular locations at particular times.

Rick Lober

While OneWeb provides a reliable communications platform – for which there will be global coverage by the end of this year, possibly early 2024 – Hughes provides the throughput to the DoD with supplementary equipment: from its 10,000 ground-based LEO terminals to its electronically steered flat panel antenna array

“I think some of the other LEO services that are catering more to the consumer market may not always be able to do that,” Lober added. “[They] might [have] more of a ‘best-effort’ type of service,” meaning the commercial provider cannot guarantee this level of delivery or control delay. 

Lober clarified that “Hughes’ view is that no constellation is going to provide everything that’s needed,” at least on their own. 

So, Hughes augments the ecosystem, ensuring throughput is managed in the most efficient way possible, whether that involves advanced management techniques such as Software Defined Networking. 

A back-up service providing a competitive military advantage

It is not just the high-speed connectivity that will provide a competitive military advantage to the US military across land, sea and air in a time that is widely considered to be a ‘dangerous decade’. 

“We believe [our LEO services] will be an adjunct to purpose-built systems,” Lober emphasised.  

The DoD already operates space-based assets it has built for custom purposes. One such system is the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture Programme (PWSAP). This is the DoD’s LEO constellation that demonstrates low-latency communication and provides a resilient network of integrated capabilities.  

The US Department of Defense is developing a range of LEO capabilities to fulfill the US military’s SATCOM requirements. Credit: US Army/Sgt. 1st Class Marisol Walker

On 2 September, the DoD launched ten satellites within its first constellation iteration, called the Tranche 0 Transport Layer mission. Lober explained that “both [OneWeb and Lyra] systems will be a back-up to purpose-built systems”, such as the PWSAP. 

“If you look back at the last 15 years to some of the wars we’ve had [such as] Afghanistan, I think there was a lot of dependency on commercial satellites,” Lober said. “The DoD has never had enough satellite capacity in its purpose-built systems, [it has] used commercial resources for years and we expect that to continue.” 

Meeting US DoD requirements in space

This critical commercial innovation base is essential for the advancement of the DoD’s Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) strategy, which gives the US Armed Forces the ability “to regain and maintain information and decision advantage”. 

A greater pool of assets – both custom-built and commercially produced – will enable the DoD to operate as a domain-agnostic force. The DoD’s JADC2 network includes a diverse range of unified ISR systems that require connection in real time.  

“This data and information sensor ecosystem exploits remote sensors, intelligence assets, and open sources to sense and simultaneously integrate information from and within all domains to enable the Joint Force Commander to achieve information and decision advantage,” explained Lober. 

Space-based communications are a critical relay hub enabling the transmission of real-time information gathered across this ISR ecosystem. In fact, according to GlobalData, the military satellite communications market will continue to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 4.6%, rising from $8.1bn to $12.8bn over the next decade. 

With growing competition for space related assets coming out of the private sector, and as OneWeb will soon provide global coverage by Q4 2023, Lober emphasised that “the satellite industry is probably stronger than it’s ever been in terms of the number of offerings out there.”