November 30, 2022

Satellite Internet Will Change The Battlefield Once And For All

Military Applications of the First Computer, Satellite and Internet

Technology and military are highly related. A lot of technologies that we use today were actually invented during the times of war, starting from satellites and computers to a thing as simple as a duct tape, all were a result of military innovation. These technologies started proliferating, the new and better version of the same were invented for greater public good and profits. The commercialisation of such inventions led to the wide-spread applications in fields as diverse as manufacturing, entertainment, education and more.

The cold war gave impetus to the development of rockets and satellites. On October 4, 1957 the first satellite of the world called “Sputnik 1” was sent to space by the erstwhile USSR using the R-7 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) rocket. The success of Sputnik had a major impact on the cold war scenario.

After the launch of Sputnik, the Soviets were successful to fed fears that the U.S. military had fallen behind in developing new technologies. As a result, the launch of Sputnik served to intensify the arms race between the two countries, the Sputnik 1 launch by the USSR led to the creation of America’s premier defence and space research institutions – the NASA and DARPA in 1958, these organisations today are considered to have made the best space and military innovation till date.

With the increased competition between the two world superpowers as an answer to the Sputnik 1 the US developed its first initial satellite called “Echo 1” which was created for communications across the United States. This path breaking step towards new way of communication would certainly help the US military forces to ease battlefield communications rather just catering to the general need of faster, better, cost-friendly communication.

Besides developing world’s first communication satellite by NASA, in fact it was the DARPA which invented the internet and also the GPS. In the 1960s, U.S. Defense Department’s ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) built a communications network to connect the computers in the agency, called ARPANET that gave birth to the Internet. DARPA also provided many of the essential advances that made possible today’s computers and communications systems, including seminal technological achievements that support the speech recognition, touch-screen displays, accelerometers, and wireless capabilities at the core of today’s smartphones and tablets. 

Even the first substantial computer called ENIAC which was completed in 1946 was used to produce ballistics tables and refine hydrogen bomb designs. In fact, IBM’s first entry into the commercial computer market was their Model 701, also known as the “Defense Calculator,” and was delivered just four years later, mainly in response to the start of the Korean War.

Without these pathbreaking researches in the field of computers, internet and satellite we couldn’t have arrive to see the age of satellite-based internet which is again going to dramatically revolutionise many different fields as internet which is also known as the greatest invention of the 20th Century will now be able to reach any part of the Earth.

Importance of Satellite Internet

Number of satellites in each constellation as of 2019, Credits: Astrome Technologies, India

The satellite internet is an alternative to the traditional methods of internet connectivity that is through fixed line service or cellular internet besides other methods. The satellite internet is wireless internet beamed down from satellites therefore satellites enable direct means internet service which will not require installation of the fibre optic cables and mobile towers that provide coverage to a limited area. As the internet transmits directly from the satellite it shall enable connectivity to a larger part of the earth and also enable internet connectivity to remote and difficult-to-reach areas which still sans internet connectivity. As a matter of fact it is estimated that about 4 billion people, that is, more than half of the world’s total population, cannot access reliable internet. This project aims to provide authentic space internet services at a low cost to every inaccessible terrain.

Since 2014, number of companies announced working on satellite internet constellations based in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO).Although satellite-based internet services are still availed through Geostationary or Geosynchronous Equatorial Orbit (GEO) based communication Satellite. However, the GEO based internet satellite data transfer is considerably slow since the satellite is based far away from earth, the data takes extra time to reach the earth and backwards, which adds up to about 600 milliseconds time. Indian Armed forces already uses High Throughput Satellite (HTS) based broadband service for far away locations based on satellites such as GSAT 11 and GSAT 29.

Following the launch of the GSAT-11 in December 2018, erstwhile ISRO chairman, K. Sivan, said at a press conference that the satellite is capable of offering peak data bandwidth of 14 Gbps through satellite networks. India state owned BBNL satellite-based internet services are already available across remote locations of India having strategic importance including those Naxal hit and also near India-China border like in Galwan Valley, Doklam, Leh, Tawang Etc. Recently, the Siachen Signallers on 18 September this year activated the satellite-based internet service on the Siachen Glacier at 19,061 feet using a VSAT terminal.

Some key players in providing commercial satellite internet are Starlink of SpaceX, OneWeb, TeleSat, Kuiper of Amazon and SpaceNet by Astrome. Ernst and Young (EY) post the launch of the LEO based internet services projected India’s satellite services market to grow to cross USD 5 billion by 2025. As per some estimates, about 50% of India’s vast population (around 1.3. billion) is yet to be connected to the internet. Hence, satellite internet will enable India’s dream to have last-mile connectivity. The last-mile connectivity not only matters to civil domain but also important from strategic point of view as these areas mostly situated at the borderline of the country which is vital for India’s border security and power projection beyond the borders.

The SpaceX Starlink Satellite Internet Connection will provide broadband service with a 300 MBPS speed this may reach even 1 GBPS or beyond. But note that satellite internet is subject to high latency, so the speeds aren’t always what they seem. Many factors affect the latency rate, in case of severe rains and other such sort of atmospheric tendencies satellite internet may fail however when it comes to mountains where most of the Indian borders are we could possibly notice higher connectivity due to better line-of-sight propagation. Cable internet are still faster and far cheaper than the satellite internet. Also, as of present 4G solutions are capable of much higher speeds compared to satellite broadband.

Towards Satellite Internet-based Net-Centric Operations (NCO)

As the Ukraine war continues, it was recently reported that the SpaceX Starlink satellites are helping Ukraine’s military to fight against Russia. Ukraine is using Starlink to control drones that are helping Ukraine to attack Russian tanks. It would not be wrong to say that the satellite internet has already started becoming an important part of contemporary military operations besides the fact that the technology has still not been even fully realised across many regions of the earth.

Space assets have been used since the cold war period for to support military operations in the domains such as surveillance, communication, navigation and meteorology. Since the starting of the Revolution of Military Affairs (RMA) in 1991 a lot of focus has been on reducing the military decision-making cycle when engaging the opponent in the battlefield.

The new technologies are making Network Centric Warfare (NCW) more effective and satellites has played the most important role in enabling and betterment of the NCW as a concept. The satellites are in fact is an enabler of the whole NCW concept which are now paving way for Multi-Domain Operations (MDO).

Therefore, Satellite Internet-based Net Centricity” is nothing new as concept. Military operations across the world today already relies heavily on satellites but the satellite internet will just push this concept to the next level. The satellite internet will enable better integration among the forces and its assets paving way for reinforced Command, Control, Computers, Communications, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities leading to better integration of the forces paving way for improved Effect-based Operations (EBO).

The satellite internet will not only strengthen military communications over the air, land or sea but it will also reinforce already employed Surveillance and Target Acquisition (TA) systems and other Technical Intelligence (TECHINT) assets. It will enable Bulk Data Transfer, Cloud, and IoT services in the battlefield which is essential for modern military operations.

The satellite internet will enable cross-communication in real-time among these platforms with better faster and larger data packets at very low rates making overall communications easier accessible at a given point hence enabling better Battlefield Decision Making, while also allowing surveillance systems better connected throughout having information of all activities of concern in a given region.

Further, with disruptive C2 technologies like Cyber-Physical Systems (CPS), IoT, Military Internet of Things (IoT), cloud computing, cognitive computing, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) supported by next-generation communication technologies enabled by satellite internet will not only reinforce connectivity which will help getting better synchronisation among the existing defence systems but will helps making Command and Control (CC) more effective while also help in making autonomous weapons systems more lethal. The 5G enabled satellite internet can usher a different era for Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAW).

Communication systems are a lucrative target for any military manoeuvre as they are considered to be the backbone of the armed forces on which most of the modern battlefield systems relies. The satellite internet not only enable better integration among the armed forces assets but it also reduces the risk posed by Anti-Satellite weapon (ASAT) of various kinds, as targeting large constellations of LEO based satellites will not possible therefore communications can go uninterrupted in a given battlefield environment be it urban or distant. Even if it is targeted, then countries might switch to other commercial platforms available and may reserve the launch of these constellation to meet the need in the crises.

The satellite internet will ensure uninterrupted communication even in the event of a natural or man-made disaster or wars involving the use of ASATs. Therefore, satellite internet can be leveraged for both war and peace time military operations.

Satellite Enabled 5G Internet

As per Nokia, LEO satellites will play a key part in extending cellular 5G networks to air, sea and other remote areas not covered by small cell networks. For the end-user, satellites offer a seamless extension of 5G services. Integrating satellites with 5G infrastructure improves the Quality of Experience (QoE) of high-capacity applications. By intelligently routing and offloading traffic, satellites save valuable spectrum and improve the resilience of each network. With the help of 5G-enabled satellites, these immersive experiences can globally transmit higher data rates to support smooth delivery and low latency to mobile and other devices.

A Beijing-based start-up called GalaxySpace is also preparing to provide 5G coverage in the country based on around 2000 LEO satellites and which they say plans can be extended to 42,000 when the network is complete making way for providing satellite based 5G coverage across the globe. The Chinese media states that despite its smaller size, the 1,000-satellite Chinese network will be the first of its kind to use 5G technology. Chinese acclaims that it will ensure download speeds of more than 500 megabits per second.

The satellite company Inmarsat which is also providing extensive satellite services in India’s public sector has unveiled plans for a new type of communications network that brings together its existing Geosynchronous (GEO) satellites along with new LEO satellites (150-175 in number) and terrestrial 5G network. They call it “Orchestra,” which will be designed to serve industrial wireless connectivity in difficult-to-reach places for the maritime, aviation and defence sectors – it will be covering mostly public sector rather commercial.

Way Forward

Starlink currently has over 2,100 satellites in orbit around Earth (shown on the map above). SpaceX has permission from the US government to launch 12,000 satellites, and it has asked for permission to launch as many as 30,000 more. (Source: satellitemap.space.)

Today, we cannot survive without space-based applications and our dependency on space is only going to increase. Our dependence on space will continue to grow as there will be advancement of space-based technologies with proliferation of small space rockets (SSLV) with significant cost cutting in satellite launching – major countries across the world will keep investing in new space technologies which can alter the world in a new manner. Therefore, improving spatial and satellite information passageways is important not only from public policy view but also strategic. There is need for greater collaborations in terms of Civil-Military Relations (CMR) in the area of satellite internet.

The Kelkar Committee on defence notes that Information Superiority (IS) encompasses the capabilities of Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) and Command, Control, Communications and Computers (C4) to acquire and assimilate information needed to dominate and neutralise the adversary and effectively employ own forces. Capability with which one can positively identify potential targets as friend, foe or neutral in sufficient time with the highest possible level of confidence and at the requisite range to support weapon release and engagement decisions.

Satellites are strategic platforms and our national autonomy demands not to rely foreign assets. During Kargil conflict, the GPS services to India were switched off by US, a move to fail navigational and Target Acquisition capabilities of the Indian Air Force which was busy engaging targets in the high-attitudes besides causing same problem to Indian Naval platforms out in the Arabian Sea. Also, India has a long history of depending on foreign space-based communication services like in past satellites of Inmarsat and Iridium were used to meet “unclassified” communication requirements the Indian Navy.

Therefore, there is need for India to start developing limited series of next-generation indigenous LEO-based satellite internet constellation. It should not only meet the national requirements but keeping in mind the regional requirements, especially considering the Indian Ocean Region (IOR)- a limited satellite constellation can be pursued in the short-term which can be further extended to provide full-fledged services in future.

Further, more importance needs to be given on cybersecurity issues as internet will now become more accessible. Space assets is as vulnerable to cyberattack as any other asset. Cyberattack on Indian satellites, ground centres and networks are a possibility in a potential conflict or otherwise.

The article first appeared in IADN Strategic Focus magazine, October-November 2022 Issue.

Author

  • Shantanu K. Bansal

    Founder of IADN. He has more than 10 years of experience in research and analysis. An award winning researcher, he writes for the leading defence and security journals, think-tanks and in-service publications. He is a senior consultant at the Indian Army Training Command (ARTRAC), Shimla. Contact him at: [email protected]

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