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Military Satcom Avionics: A Growing Opportunity Over Next Decade

Viasat has provided wideband satellite communications (Satcom) capability for a small number of Bell-Boeing V-22 tiltrotor aircraft to allow them to update mission plans in-flight based on changing threat conditions. Hughes is working to provide improved wideband satellite communications for General Atomics type certifiable Predator B UAVs and rotorcraft. Lockheed Martin is working with L3Harris and Ball Aerospace to provide satcom for the F-35 Lightning — an effort that remains under wraps. Lockheed Martin has said the F-35 will be the first fighter aircraft to integrate beyond line-of-sight communications across its mission domain.

These are but a few examples demonstrating the growing business opportunity for companies to furnish avionics terminals that can provide wideband video, voice, and data for military forces on the move. Last year, DoD said it had some 17,000 legacy wideband satcom terminals, many of which will require upgrades or replacement to adapt to modern satcom technology.

“Satcom is key [for the military], primarily because it provides beyond line of sight communications which can cover one-third of the earth or more on a single satellite,” said Rick Lober, vice president and general manager of Hughes’ defense and intelligence systems division.

“Where you see a lot of line of sight stuff out there, typically if you get beyond 150 miles or so, it [the signal] will drop off or if you’ve got mountains or blockage it won’t go through,” Lober added. “Having satcom to get around distance and terrain issues is important. It’s also important for backhauling data to headquarters in the U.S. so that people in the Pentagon are seeing the same video that, say, a pilot is seeing in a helicopter or a pilot flying a UAV. It’s a key enabler.”

The Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey is one of the U.S. military aircraft models that could get satcom upgrades in the near future. Boeing

Since 2007, the U.S. military has deployed 10 Boeing Wideband Global Satcom satellites (WGS) that use the Ka-band frequency, but bandwidth demands continue to rise for forces in the field and commanders back in the continental United States.

“10 years ago, at the height of the last war, there really wasn’t enough mil satcom to go around so there was a lot of dependency on commercial satcom, and there still is,” Lober said. “On a lot of the UAV missions, a lot of that is going over commercial satellites versus military satellites. I think the demand for bandwidth, just as we see on the consumer side, is going to continue to increase on the military side.”

The future deployment of WGS and other military communications satellites is still unlikely to meet the overall demands of military forces, Lober said.

“What we’re seeing is a lot more cooperation than, say, years ago with the commercial satcom industry on how to make commercial satcom networks part of the overall picture, primarily for resiliency purposes [for the military] to give them a backup or more bandwidth, as needed,” he said.

Such resiliency via commercial satcom gives the military continued communications access if an adversary employs jamming against a military satellite or if a military satellite is taken out of service.

Indeed, military forces increasingly want access to high bandwidth communications, no matter the place, terrain, or the anti-access attempts of adversaries. As satcom avionics technology becomes smaller and light, especially user terminals, commercial satcom companies predict exponential growth in the market.

The commercial satellite industry will likely be key to achieving significantly higher throughput, as some commercial High Throughput Satellites (HTS) such as the Viasat constellation can transmit 100 gigabits per second of data and up — significantly more than the capacity of military Fixed Satellite Service (FSS) satellites.

“The speed and capacity of satellites like Viasat-3 are going to be game changing for the unmanned and rotary wing fleets because you can use smaller antennas and get much more effective data rates,” said Ken Peterman, the president of Viasat’s government services division.

Providers of commercial satellite bandwidth for the military include Intelsat, Eutelsat, Inmarsat, EchoStar, SES, Hughes, and Viasat.

Last November, the Cambridge, Mass.-based consulting firm Northern Sky Research (NSR) estimated that the global government/military satcom market would grow to $10 billion from about $5 billion in 2017. Applications for unmanned aerial systems will account for 34 percent of that $5 billion in projected growth — mainly for legacy unmanned systems using FSS Ku-band — while manned aircraft applications are to account for 12 percent of the growth, NSR said.

“With spending on defense on the rise across the globe, satellite connectivity services will be a key component of a sensor-fused, highly connected operational environment of tomorrow,” according to an NSR report summary.

The Air Force Research Laboratory is working with Viasat on a demonstration to show that ground-based military radios can transmit Line of Sight Link 16 data to a Low-Earth Orbit satellite to improve military situational awareness. That may evolve to an attempt to link the LEO satellite to a geo-synchronous earth orbit (GEO) satellite to allow distant commanders to have a birds-eye view of the battlefield. One day, such a capability may also allow the distant transmission of near-real time telematics data from aircraft, Peterman said.

A U.S. Air Force F-35. Lockheed Martin

Viasat has installed satcom on more than 300 military aircraft, including Boeing C-17 transports, Lockheed Martin C-130 transports and AC-130 gunships, and a number of command and control/intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, such as the Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft.

In June, Viasat received Army Forces Strategic Command (ARSTRAT) certification of the company’s Commercial Broadband Modem (CBM)-400 to allow military users, including aircraft crews, to send and receive secure high-definition video, voice and cloud-based networking data. ARSTRAT certification allows military users to switch between commercial satellites and WGS—a useful capability, if a given satellite is not available.

“I’m very confident we’re leading the field in terms of development and availability of multi-mode, multi-band, multi-network antennas and terminals,” Viasat’s Peterman said.

“So now you have aircraft able to roam among this hybrid multi-network architecture, we sometimes call the HAN, the hybrid adaptive network, to improve resiliency and provide an assuredness of connectivity that was never possible before,” he said. “That imposes enormous costs and complexity on an adversary in a military context, just trying to disrupt that communications. We can roam among satellites and networks. We use different ground infrastructures depending upon where we’re roaming. We use different frequency bands. These different networks implement diff cyber security approaches.”

For L3Harris’ broadband communications sector, protected communications is a primary focus of its military satcom avionics effort.

“A lot of the work we’re doing as it relates to avionics is protected communications and interfacing with the terminals with these next generation waveforms that can operate in contested environments over different constellations,” said Don Claussen, vice president of Army and homeland defense programs for L3Harris’ broadband communications sector.

Such constellations will likely include hundreds of LEO satellites, which the Pentagon desires to provide communications resilience, shorter transmission times, and polar coverage.

“From an antenna perspective, I think what we’re going to see in the future, and what we all need to work toward, is moving away from the parabolic dishes that create the large humps on military aircraft and get the electronically steerable arrays and antennas that are conformal so that they can become part of the skin of the aircraft,” Claussen said.

Overall, the next decade looks to be one of significant growth for the military satcom market and related avionics.

“As commercial markets continue to accelerate their uptake of broadband satellite connectivity, Gov and Mil end-users are feeling the pressures of being left behind,” NSR said in its 2017-2027 market forecast. “Combined with falling capacity prices, Gov and Mil markets are taking full advantage of accelerating their adoption of commercial satellite connectivity. At over 21 Gbps of capacity demand across both FSS and HTS in 2017, increasing to over 250 Gbps of satellite capacity by 2027, generating $10 billion in retail revenues for the satellite sector the market is on a growth trajectory.

“Despite years of turbulence, there is a strong outlook for Mil/Gov satcom growth on the horizon.”