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Protecting next-generation Military Satellite Communications with an innovative disaggregation approach

The full article of the abstract below was first published on Air and Space Power Review, the publication of the Royal Air Force

The MILSATCOM environment is more crowded and contested than ever, with 500,000 space debris items on one hand and over 40 space-faring nations on the other. Technological innovation has ushered in an era of offensive space assets, presenting a new type of Space Race. Yet UK military space budgets remain constrained with no foreseeable economic boost likely to relieve this.

New architectures must respond more resiliently than before. However, it is not practical to aim for space-enabled defence (where multiple beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) capabilities are synergistically employed) without considering affordability, adaptability and flexibility.

Satellite systems are as vulnerable to cost overruns and funding instability as they are to attacks. Introducing new technologies is also incredibly slow. To mitigate budget risks, we must examine defensive options: active (shoot back, escort), passive (e.g. hardening), rapid replacement or strategic disaggregation. Most choices are inflexible or limited in effect, except strategic disaggregation - where capabilities are made difficult to target by dispersing systems.  In extremis, MILSATCOM becomes one BLOS connectivity domain of many.

One disaggregation enabler is commercial SATCOM (COMSATCOM) leasing. Whilst already within the UK’s present approach, it lacks assurance activities to ensure appropriate levels of acceptable protection. Introducing defence assurance to COMSATCOM acquisition, in lock-step with the right terminal investment strategy, will give freedom of action and benefit UK prosperity.

Satellite acquisition tends to start with choosing satellites, then orbit, then payload. We suggest reversing this for a “payload-centric” disaggregation mission strategy. UK defence payloads can be hosted by friendly nation / private owner satellites.

Combining these enablers will allow the MOD to realise a more affordable and resilient set of capabilities for defence force elements than the traditional approach. Such a disaggregation dominated approach will improve system interoperability between allies, industry and the UK; strong interoperability disincentivises competitor threats.

In short, we gain protection and freedom of action at a lower cost and increased security of supply.

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  • Mark Chang

    Mark Chang

    PA defence & security expert

    Dr Mark Chang is an aerospace, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity specialist at PA Consulting. He has been deeply involved in the space sector over the last 20 years. He has worked with major suppliers of deep space and Earth centred space missions for communications, navigation and observation in the UK, mainland Europe and the USA Mark led the engineering for three high capability satellite missions for the ESA, a satellite constellation for the private sector and the first 14 Galileo GNSS payloads.

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