How Low Earth Orbit Satellites Will Help America Win the Next War

How Low Earth Orbit Satellites Will Help America Win the Next War

The military wants thousands of them to improve connectivity and experiment with the best way to use them.

During a recent military exercise, a armored combat vehicle in the Arizona engaged in a “direct fire” mission to destroy an enemy tank target, after receiving targeting cues via radio from an overhead surveillance drone, mini-drone and helicopter. In addition, that combat vehicle received informational details and locations specifics on the target first from fast-moving, low-altitude satellites operated in Washington State. 

The Army’s Project Convergence 2020, a live-fire experiment in the Arizona desert to prepare the service for accelerated, high-speed attack, was a success. The test leveraged advanced satellite connectivity to quickly find and transmit target data across large portions of the United States, demonstrating new levels of cross-domain attack.

A series of smaller, faster, lower-altitude Low Earth Orbit satellites operating from Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington state sent targeting information to live attack experiments in real time happening at Yuma Proving Grounds, Ariz., bringing new dimensions to high-speed, long-range targeting. 

“What you saw here was the first phase of information being fed by LEO satellites. That is what was going through Washington state into a surrogate ground control station. Then that ground station was sending data,” Maj. Gen. John George, Commanding General of the Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command, Army Futures Command, told The National Interest on the ground at Yuma. 

The exercise leveraged emerging technology from LEO and Medium Earth Orbit satellites, new satellite applications intended to increase “mesh” networking beyond the existing capability of existing Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) satellites. 

“e’ve been reliant upon GEO for decades. LEO satellites, being much closer, dramatically reduce the latency that is inherent in satellite communication. They increase the throughput for more data. With the smaller form factor we can get more points of presence on the battlefield closer to the tactical edge,” an expert Army engineer told Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy at Project Convergence.

The accelerated targeting technology used in Project Convergence 2020 was part of a large-scale Army effort to fight war and target enemies at “speed,” exponentially faster than any current processes. Overall, networking satellites, to drones, to mini-drones to ground attack weapons, enabled by sensor-to-shooter pairing done by an AI system called FIRESTORM, changes the Army paradigm for modern war in a substantial way. Technologies applied during the experiment were able to quickly align and optimize sensors-with-shooters in as little as twenty seconds, taking a massive, breakthrough leap beyond current norms of up to twenty minutes. 

“Taking information from space-based sensors and passing them to ground and air based effectors seemed really simple and happened super fast, but it was very complex and it took us weeks of hard coding and work to get it done,” Brig. Gen. Ross Coffman, Director, Next-Generation Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team, Army Futures Command, told reporters at PC20. 

The advent of better-networked, faster LEO satellites is moving fast for the Army and the Pentagon, who plan to deploy as many as 4,500 of the satellites. There are roughly 600 of them deployed thus far, supported by current plans to add up to 60 per month. 

“Typically we do it over GEO. We did it here over MEO and LEO, but they are still somewhat immature. By PC 21, we believe we will have full 24/7 coverage in North America to continue our experimentation. Once we get to 4,500 satellites within the next year or two, we will have global coverage with LEO,” the Army engineer said. 

The use of LEO satellites aligns with several crucial Pentagon space war aims, including a move to improve the connectivity, resilience and survivability of space assets. Connectivity comes in the form of “networking” the LEO satellites to share information and, in effect, blanket areas with coverage across expansive areas by space “nodes” to pass targeting data form one area to another to establish a continuous track. 

LEO systems can also help sustain space and satellite functionality in the event that some assets in space are destroyed by enemy fire, by building in a needed measure of redundancy. In these circumstances, networked satellites can retain operational mission status if one is jammed or hit by enemy anti-satellite weapons. 

The satellite networking for the Project Convergence effort demonstrated as part of an incremental process enabling a broader Army Combined Arms Maneuver sequence unfolding in phases. Coffman explained that space and aerial sensors were used in what he called the Penetration phase to identify enemy targets. This was then followed by a “disintegration” phase which used operational aircraft to destroy enemy long-range fires, a step leading to the final “exploit” phase wherein ground forces attacked the enemy targets. 

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Reuters