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Exciting Times Ahead for Europe's Milsatcom

Exciting yet somewhat challenging times lie ahead for European milsatcom. In the next decade, the old continent’s key milsatcom players will renew their fleets — introducing new, more powerful systems designed to increase throughput, offer better anti-jam and cyber-security protection, and cover the demand for reliable connectivity for on-the-move applications.

Despite the political difficulties epitomized in the upcoming departure of the United Kingdom from the European block in milsatcom — increasing cooperation across Europe is on the cards. The European Commission (EC) and the European Defense Agency (EDA) launched a project called Govsatcom last year, which aims to address Europe’s mid-level security satcom requirements in a coordinated way. Despite the pending Brexit, the U.K. is expected to continue playing an important role in the project with its Skynet constellation.

New Systems Coming

According to EDA Satellite Communications Program Manager Holger Lueschow, only three out of the six satcom systems operated by European governments meet the strictest milsatcom criteria as defined by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). These systems are the U.K.’s Skynet 5, a constellation of four geostationary satellites; France’s Syracuse 3A and 3B; and Italy’s Sicral 1, 1B, and Sicral 2 (co-owned with France).

“These systems provide a very high level of anti-jamming resilience, a very high level of secure Telemetry, Tracking, and Command (TT&C), and high-altitude nuclear explosion protection,” says Lueschow. “The downside is that it’s very expensive; it’s a very scarce resource.” France will be the first of the big three of Europe’s milsatcom to replace its spacecraft — Syracuse 3A and 3B — in 2021 with two new satellites.

Speaking at the Global Milsatcom 2017 conference in London last year, France Milsatcom Space Segment Manager Corrine Dumas says that the two new full-electrical Syracuse IV satellites — to be manufactured by Thales and Airbus — will provide military X- and Ka-band connectivity secured with advanced anti-jamming features, cyber-attack protection, and high altitude nuclear explosion defense.

The new Syracuse IV milsatcom system will come complete with next-generation ground segment architecture, integrating access to the highly protected Syracuse IV assets. It will also have access to the mid-level Athena Fidus capacity, as well as capacity purchased from commercial providers — a more convenient solution for military users compared to what had been available before.

Airbus, which has been working on the Syracuse IV ground segment definition and preparatory study, says that in general, the company is looking at innovative approaches to milsatcom ground segment technology — such as network softwarization and digitalization.

“Network virtualization is a big trend,” says Airbus Defense and Space, Secure Communications Head of Strategy, New Business, and Product Management Cedric Oudiette. “Almost all of the network content is digitalized. The physical layer remains only in radio access and radio becomes software defined radio.”

Digitalization enables the company to use new approaches — such as artificial intelligence and big data analytics — to increase the security and overall reliability of the network, according to Airbus.

The U.K. will commence the transition toward the next generation Skynet 6 constellation in the mid-2020s with the launch of Skynet 6A. The contract for the manufacture of this satellite — which will extend the life of the current Skynet 5 constellation — was awarded to Airbus last year, without competition. Italy is also expected to replace its Sicral and Sicral 1B satellites in the 2020s.

In addition to these high-level milsatcom systems, Germany, Spain, and Luxembourg operate satcom systems, which fall into what EDA’s Lueschow describes as Government Satellite Communications (govsatcom) — systems positioned between milsatcom and commercial satcom in terms of security features.

Luxembourg launched its GovSat-1 satellite — a joint venture between the government of Luxembourg and the country’s satellite operator, SES — earlier this year. Both Germany and Spain expect to launch new systems in the first half of the 2020s.

At the Global conference in London in November 2017, German Ministry of Defense Lieutenant Colonel Frank Ruckes says that Germany will replace its two SatcomBw spacecraft with new satellites in 2020 and 2025.

Spain will launch its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-compliant Spainsat NG 1 and 2 in 2021 and 2022 respectively, according to Brigadier General Carlos De Salas, Head of C4ISR and Space Programs at the Spanish Ministry of Defense.

“I think in this new generation of Europe’s Milsatcom systems, we are going to see military Ka-, Ka-, and X-band satellites that are going to be a little bit bigger, with a bit higher throughput and an increase of technical capabilities,” says Northern Sky Research Senior Analyst Brad Grady “It will be a lot more focused on jam resistance, cyber protection — all this kind of stuff.”

Airbus is working on future Skynet, Syracuse, and Spainsat NG technology. Alain Frizon, the company’s head of military programs, telecommunications, and satellites, says that increased security and protection is a key focus. “Historically we have had anti-jamming in X-band and, for some systems, we are also going to have it in Ka-band,” Frizon says. “Security features such as anti-jam and resilience to specific threats, like high-altitude nuclear explosions and resistance to cyber attacks, is becoming important for dual use systems.”

Public Private Partnerships

According to Grady, Europe paves the way when it comes to innovative approaches to financing. As defense budgets are always an issue, national governments explore the option of partnerships with industry players to operate their constellations.

“Europe has always been a little bit of a mixed bag in terms of how commercial and state-owned assets are being used,” says Grady. “There are a lot of different business models in Europe, where you can’t clearly say whether something is government or commercial. In the U.S. it’s either ‘you build it for me and I operate it’ or ‘I use it as a service’ — there is no mixed ground.”

Grady says that the U.K.’s Skynet 5, which is operated by Airbus on behalf of the U.K. government as part of a Private Finance Initiative contract ending in 2021, is one of the most successful implementations of private financing programs in terms of management efficiency and cost overruns.

Increasing Cooperation

Despite the investment into sovereign national resources, cooperation between European countries in the milsatcom domain is on the rise, according to EDA’s Lueschow. The govsatcom project, launched by the European Commission, the EDA, and ESA in June last year, will enter the execution stage of its demonstration of pooling and sharing of government-owned satcom resources this fall.

“Communication is required by all European military users, but not all of the communication requirements need the level of security and guaranteed access that can only be met by high-end milsatcom systems,” says Lueschow.

“We have done a study that found that only 15 percent of military satcom requirements require the highest level of guarantee and security, another 15 percent can rely on commercial resources, and in the middle lies a large 70 percent chunk that we hope to cover with govsatcom.”

So far, 15 EDA member states have joined the project, including all of the six European countries with government-owned satellite resources. “Today, every country that needs satellite capacity and doesn’t have their own assets either asks their allies or they go to the commercial market,” says Lueschow.

“What we are doing is creating a pool. Countries that own satcom resources will contribute capacity, which they don’t need at the moment. This capacity will be pooled by the agency and all those member states that either don’t have their own resources or have resources but not enough or not the right ones for a particular user case then can send requests to the EDA and we will enable them to meet those requirements through the capacity from the pool.”

Lueschow added that the entire demonstration, which will run for three years, will be based on existing technology and services.

Commercial Capacity

Commercial operators are increasingly focusing on the military market, offering large amounts of capacity through the new generation of High Throughput Satellites (HTS). And according to Lueschow, the military demand is expected to be so high that even the new government-owned satellite systems and improved cooperation won’t be able to satisfy it.

“To cover this 70 per cent overall govsatcom requirement, there will not be enough resources coming only from the governments,” he says. “That means that the resources will also have to come from the commercial side — but not as they come as of today. Those resources have to be strengthened or have to be provided in a way that can then meet the security requirements that are coming along with the demand.”

Lueschow adds that to provide capacity into the EDA-managed pool, commercial operators would have to obtain accreditation, which will require them to demonstrate that the security requirements have been met. “The commercial side has to adapt and has to invest into improving the security that currently is available in the commercial systems,” says Lueschow. “If you look at the commercial side, they all have identified that as an issue and they are all working on improvements.”

Commercial assets can already be used freely for certain applications including administrative tasks and welfare (access to online entertainment and communication for troops), which is increasingly required by military forces to retain personnel.

“Right now, you get the security that those commercial providers can offer,” says Lueschow. “You are not in a position to request specific features.”

He says that the upcoming technologies, such as Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) and Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations, would likely find their place in the mix, possibly driving capacity prices down and increasing the size of the pool available to the users.

European countries are likely to be relying more on their own dedicated assets rather than on commercial capacity, says Grady.“The exception to this are Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) such as Reapers and Predators that are designed and built around leveraging commercial capacity, especially the Ku-band,” he says. “It takes a lot of effort to redesign those programmes for Ka-band. It’s happening, but for the foreseeable future, these are still going to rely on commercial capabilities.”

Brexit Aftermath Looms Large

In less than a year, the U.K. will depart from the European Union (EU). But many questions around what’s going to happen after Brexit remain unanswered. And this is clearly true for the U.K.’s involvement with European defense programs.

In his recent remarks in front of the U.K. Parliament, the Minister for Defense Procurement Guto Bebb says that the U.K.’s intention is to remain involved in European defense matters and maintain cooperation with the European Defense Agency (EDA). However, he hinted that the U.K. is not pleased with how the negotiations are going.

“The way in which this has been put together by the Commission makes that very difficult, because the third-country offer being made to the United Kingdom would not be beneficial to our position at this point,” he says. “So there is still a lot of negotiation to be done. None the less, we are very, very clear that we would like to be involved in these projects.”

The U.K. is among the 15 countries that signed up for the govsatcom demonstration of pooling and sharing of government-owned satellite resources being prepared by the EDA. As an owner of the Skynet milsatcom constellation, one of the most powerful assets to contribute to the pool, the U.K.’s role is certainly not marginal.

“The U.K. is in the govsatcom project and it probably will be a provider of the capacity to the pool,” Lueschow says. “What will happen after Brexit has to be covered in the overall discussions and agreements.”

Previously, the EU says it would restrict access for British firms to the future manufacturing contracts related to the Galileo satellite navigation system. The U.K. government reacted by threatening to completely withdraw from the programme and launch its own constellation.

NSR’s Brad Grady expects the U.K.’s departure from the European Union to strengthen the involvement of NATO in the European theater.

“In the greater scheme of cooperation, the European Defense Agency and those kinds of organizations don’t have that much U.K. involvement whereas the U.K. has a lot of involvement with NATO,” he says.

“I suppose that one of the outcomes of Brexit could actually be a stronger NATO.” VS