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COMM-OPS - Major Trends in the Tactical Use Of MILSATCOM
by Dan Dia-Tsi-Tay, Regional Manager Asia Pacific, SWE-DISH Satellite Systems

While Military Satellite Communications (MILSATCOM) has been used for strategic communications as reachback between field command posts and headquarters for decades, recent technology advances in the satcom field is enabling faster deployment of highly mobile forces capable of adapting quickly to changing conditions in the field.

Worldwide, military organizations are in the process of transforming into network-centric, information-based forces. New requirements are re-defining the need and use of communications. Innovations are shaped by new operational concepts and weapon and sensor trends. In the new paradigm, communication is not only an enabler but is directly affecting the outcomes of wars. Tactical use of MILSATCOM play a pivotal role in providing the interoperable, robust, “network-centric” communications needed for future operations.

Experiences From Operation Iraqi Freedom
Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) validated some of the expected benefits of a joint and fully networked force — massing of effects rather than force, high force exchange ratios through better situational awareness, and coordinated engagements. OIF achieved a 70-90 to one exchange ratio, meaning that for every coalition force soldier, there were 70 to 90 Iraqi soldiers.

A hidden factor underlying these success factors was the far superior communications capability of the U.S. forces as compared to those of the Iraqis. U.S. forces were able to maintain close coordination, disseminate sensor and intelligence information, and enable coordinated strikes over an expanded theatre of operations.

While the deployment of troops and application of munitions have dropped drastically, the demand for communications has increased dramatically. The number of troops deployed in OIF was roughly 300,000, compared to the 500,000 troops in Operation Desert Storm, while the bandwidth used for satellite communication increased from 100 Mbps to almost 4 Gbps — 40 times more bandwidth for a 40 percent smaller force. The increased bandwidth allowed coordinated use of UAVs, which improved situational awareness. Voice communications increased by 40 times and secure data communication 6 times. It also allowed Video Tele Conferencing (VTC) and desktop collaboration tools to be extensively used for Communication and Control (C2).

This massive increase of satellite bandwidth could not be catered for by dedicated military satellites — as a matter of fact, all but 20 percent of the used capacity came from commercial satellites.

“It helped us speed up the operational tempo significantly”. The quote is from a high ranking U.S. military official discussing the broadband satellite communications network used by the US V Corps in OIF. The network used a new generation of lighter, easier to use, more rugged broadband satellite systems. Its successful performance in combat operations gave a hint both on the future role of MILSATCOM and on the ground equipment that will be used.
General Tommy Franks, the Commander of the U.S. Central Command during OIF, stated that ”the most important lesson from Operation ’Iraqi Freedom’ is that networked forces rule the battlefield.”

A Force In Transformation
The end of the Cold War era has changed the nature of threats and conflicts around the world. What used to be a West vs. East standoff between two superpowers has changed into a world with scattered regional and ethnical conflicts and a global threat from terrorists and insurgents. The switch from the Cold War era territorial defence to modern expeditionary warfare also affects the military organizations.

Today’s forces are not only deployed for war fighting. They are involved in counter-insurgency operations and global peace keeping mission. The military also often play an important role in disaster response and recovery operations. Apart from territorial defence many of these missions take place on foreign grounds.

The traditional hierarchical organization is not suitable for the new environment. The key to the flexibility required by the military to meet the new challenges is to have an organization that can adapt to the different operational needs — a task force organization. The task force is tailored to be best equipped to fulfill a certain mission, and that accounts for its competencies and resources – both human and equipment.

One example of this is the creation of the European Union Battlegroup (EUBG) organization. Not only the military organization, but also the soldiers themselves are affected by the changes. The soldiers have many roles to fulfill — war fighters, peace keepers, relief workers, and so on. As part of a global security community, they also have to be prepared to work together with people from other nations, cultures, and backgrounds in places far from home.

Their roles as war fighters have also changed. From previously being specialized in one area, they are now required to be more multi-functional, which brings demands on new competencies and equipment. Apart from weapons and body armor the soldiers are also required to carry various sensors and communication equipment — all on which they have to be properly trained.

Strategic MILSATCOM is traditionally used on a division or brigade level and operated by specialized satellite engineers from the Signals Corps. The introduction of MILSATCOM into tactical use puts new requirements on the terminals as well as the users. Its use at lower echelons puts strong demands on size and operability of the terminals as the users are mobile units with limited space to spare and operates under constant time constraints.


This is defined as when terminals are in one, fixed position for several days up to several months in duration. The terminals are typically larger transportable systems (from 2.4m and upwards) operated by communication experts and used as temporary anchor stations for reachback communications from field command posts to headquarters for various applications, such as: Command and Control (C2); Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR); remote specialist functions; and soldier welfare (communication with home).

This is mainly used by company level and below and the terminals are deployed during short stops — minutes/hours/days. The terminals must be compact and easy to use as mobility and quick deployment is critical. They are commonly used for in-theatre communication to support VTC and battlefield planning collaboration, operated by soldiers with limited training in comms.

These systems provide real-time communication while on the move. They must provide continuous connectivity and be able to automatically and rapidly recover from signal blockages, due to man made objects, terrain/foliage, weather and other atmospheric effects.

C/SOTM are deployed on various types of vehicles serving as mobile command posts, reconnaissance teams, missile and artillery units etc covering a wide range of applications including: Command and Control, which tends to be asymmetrical with most bandwidth to the remote terminal; and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), where data is generated on the remote platform, so while also asymmetrical, most bandwidth is from the remote terminal. New applications also include soldier-system interoperability where individual warfighters have wireless connectivity to the SOTM vehicles and back into field or headquarters command centres.

The biggest issues for implementation and growth of SOTM services include: interference and regulatory compliance; compatibility with legacy networks and systems; limited power from satellite beams that may have been designed for larger antennas; limited bandwidth; and the need for terminals to operate across multiple platforms — on the ground, sea, or in the air.

Requirements On Tactical

The current and future operational requirements of tactical MILSATCOM for expeditionary forces sets a number of conditions the terminals must fulfill. To support truly global operations all terminals must:
  • Support true broadband connectivity – Mbps and upwards
  • Be compliant with all satellite operators (including requirements for 2° orbital satellite spacing)
  • Support multi frequency band operation
  • Be compatible with legacy protocols and nets
  • Provide seamless communication with existing portable, mobile & fixed assets
  • Operate on same family of satellites as existing ground terminals
  • Support both star and mesh networks
  • Be operational in SCPC, TDMA and DAMA nets
  • Support quick and automatic deployment — no operator intervention
  • Be easy install, operate and maintain

Additional requirements for C/SOTM terminals are:
  • Instant re-acquisition after blockage
  • Support pole-to-pole operation without keyhole effects (requires 4-axis stabilization)
  • Support platform independence (land/sea)

By using terminals built on common modular system architecture the users can easily adapt the systems to rapidly evolving operational needs, thereby significantly reducing the total cost of ownership. Field replaceable antenna-, transceiver- and modem modules provide maximum flexibility and minimum unavailability.

About the author
Dan Dia-Tsi-Tay is Regional Manager for Asia Pacific of SWE-DISH Satellite Systems, a world-leading supplier of mobile satellite communications equipment and related services for broadband applications, recently acquired by DataPath. He has more than 20 years of experience from the communications field from several senior management positions in the communications sector in the region. Mr. Dia-Tsi-Tay has a Master of Science in Electrical Engineering from the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden.