The increasing integration of commercial Satcom services by militaries — Q&A with experts

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A blend of military and secure commercial communications has steadily increased as private companies look to provide services that meet operational military requirements. While commercial offerings become more advanced, secure and inexpensive, militaries are exploring how they can integrate these services to enhance their capabilities in space.

In an exclusive Q&A for the inaugural Defence in Space 2023 Conference, VitalBriefing spoke with Dave Davis, Senior Technical Director at ST Engineering iDirect and Nik Smith, Regional Director UK and Europe at Lockheed Martin, about this important industry trend. These are their insights.

What factors are prompting the choice of commercial satellite communication providers for military purpose? What has changed to make militaries more open than in the past to integrating commercial services into their operations? 

“This isn’t actually a trend that should be classified as a ‘new’ development,” Smith insists. “Commercial services from space have always been an integral part of recent military operations, especially since the Gulf War.” 

Back then, though, militaries predominantly used commercial services for satcom when they needed to access additional capacity over and beyond that which they owned. “Such services would generally be used for lower priority traffic,” he notes. “What has changed is the nature of the services that are now available on the market.”

For instance, there now are more options for ‘sensing’ from space (SAR, RF, hyperspectral), as well as an increasing number of options that satcom has at its disposal, including in LEO and MEO. For military planners, this means they can add these services into their capability mix. 

Meanwhile, explains Davis, commercial technology has become much cheaper — sometimes by orders of magnitude. In other words, militaries’ tendency to consider integrating commercial services is also a blend of cost and capability. 

“While Defence has historically led communications technology innovation, it has been outpaced in recent decades by commercial innovation,” he says. “So although there is still a need for sovereign controlled assets, if a commercial capability can provide the features and function required with a secure overlay, and at a cheaper price, it’s a straightforward decision.” Agreeing with Smith, Davis emphasises that “it’s a balance of affordability, resilience and capability.” 

“Ultimately,” concludes Smith, “we have seen the use of commercially provided services in many other domains where key enablers (suppliers, transport, facilities management) have often been augmented by commercial suppliers. These days, the options available in the space sector have changed.”

What factors should satellite service providers consider in providing military services? For instance, what cyber risks should they be most concerned about?

Both the experts agree: Security is key. 

Nik Smith, Regional Director UK & Europe, Lockheed Martin Space

This is especially the case regarding ground and link segments as they are the most vulnerable. “Any commercial provider that sells services for military usages needs to take action to secure those areas,” warns Smith, “which inherently requires robust cyber protection.”

Over the air, Davis says, security can be offered with TRANSEC, encryption, interference mitigation and other technologies. The network side, on the other hand, is like any other point-to-point link that must be secure. On this issue, he clarifies that a private wire or private cloud would be preferable, “as long as it’s a secure connection.

“I should also mention that standard network security also plays a part. It never fails to amaze me how many attackers are able to leverage the fact that a public IP address and default password is being used. That kind of failure is tantamount to sharing information publicly.”

It may seem obvious, but both experts stress that providers must be prepared for a full range of cyber attacks. “This includes, for example, securing their supply chain,” says Smith, adding that “across the wider electronic warfare spectrum, there is also a risk of jamming or interference, especially from the ground, that satellite service providers should be prepared for.”

A key reminder from Smith for commercial operators is that they should consider themselves as complementary to military capabilities: “Any of the commercial services used to support a military could also be available to that military’s adversaries. This is a major challenge — how do militaries then demonstrate or achieve operational advantage?”

He advises commercial service providers to keep in mind that although they can be a crucial part of future military planning, they would do well not to attempt to replace dedicated military space systems designed to survive in a contested domain and then meet specific requirements of military users (protection, availability, security, assurance, capacity, etc.). 

On that note, what commercial confidentiality and military secrecy factors are liable to arise?

On this topic, the experts focus on different but equally important factors: Trust and discretion.

Dave Davis, Senior Technical Director, ST Engineering iDriect

For Davis, trust is critical. Commercial technologies must keep up with the biggest threats – which means they are required constantly to evolve and improve. 

“Similarly, I expect the need for national control will become a bigger priority for many countries,” he says. “This will especially be the case they look to adhere to the limitations set by export controls like the Export Administration Regulations (EAR) and International Traffic In Arms (ITAR), both of which can be seen as a pain to navigate but are a necessary part of any sufficiently advanced technology.”

Davis also expects an increasing number of national waveforms. “Many of these waveforms will be underpinned by a commercial technology, but nations will have their own secret sauce and differentiation as part of each national waveform”, he says.

According to Davis, the result will be a shift towards more software-defined approaches on both the hub and remotes.

Meanwhile, Smith zeroes in on the fact that any military customer would expect a commercial provider to offer complete discretion — especially related to locations of users and the nature of the communications being contracted.

“Some providers have found a way to allow militaries to control payloads in a way that gives the operator limited knowledge of force laydowns or utilisation, factors that can give indications of mission type”, Smith explains. The difficulty with this, he says, is that to provide these services effectively will require high levels of trust and assurance, often requiring a degree of openness and transparency that many commercial entities may not be comfortable with.

“In addition, there will also need to be consideration of the physical locations of staff, satellite ground terminals and gateways since some regions may be considered a higher risk.”

How does use of commercial communications services differ from previous military relationships with private-sector contractors?

While Smith does not feel it has changed in a significant way, Davis says this relationship has become much more collaborative and partnership-oriented.

Smith describes the dynamic from a more transactional lens: “There is still a need to agree a level of services provision and then, through commercial and contractual means, ensure that the commercial entity is properly remunerated for the work to be done, with some consideration for any additional risk (which may need to be insured or assured).”

He feels that this relationship between military and industry tends sometimes to be too transactional, leaving little incentive for commercial providers to build the necessary resilience or contingent capacity into their systems to ensure they are able to meet military requirements. However, in his view this does not represent a change.

Rather, for Smith, impacting the sector is the reality that many of the new constellations and operators are becoming far more global both in terms of physical presence (location of staff, offices and ground terminals) and ownership.

Alternatively, Davis argues there is a transition occurring away from the traditional vendor/vendee-type relationship that has been prevalent. As a result, he believes “there will be a need to develop suitably qualified and experienced personnel within the military who can make informed decisions that enable and empower the commercial-military collaboration rather than just passively purchase a service.”

As this collaborative dynamic becomes increasingly common within the industry, Davis predicts there will be a parallel need for entities that have traditionally been competitors to explore how they can work together to provide a blended portfolio to the military. He says that “with clear guidance and an educated military end-user, this can be a very effective way of achieving the ideal of a PACE plan.

Are commercial service providers at risk of collateral damage as a result of geopolitical tensions, such as between the US and China?

“Indeed, geopolitics inherently has a significant influence on business — but this is particularly true in the technology sector” says Davis, who does not see this reality changing or becoming smoother in the near future. He also believes “It’s important to note, however, that such tensions are not limited to traditional opponents like the US and China. There can be just as much protectionism, for instance, between French and UK companies. This is an unfortunate reality that can hamper innovation in the sector if not properly managed and mitigated.”

Smith also warns of more extreme situations where international geopolitical hostilities can cause friction, such as with Russia’s recent illegal invasion of Ukraine: “In such situations, commercial providers who are selling services to militaries have been deemed by our adversaries as legitimate military targets.” As a result, these private companies need to develop business models that take this into consideration.

He cautions that many of our adversaries are also aware of the importance of space services to wider social needs and national interests. “Negatively impacting a nation’s populace is a strategy that can be employed to weaken political backing,” says Smith. “So even operators who are not actually selling services to the military could become targets as part of wider strategic military campaigns. For example, financial systems can suffer by targeting the timing signals that support them.”

In some cases, he says, commercial systems may even be targeted simply for being used by organisations that support military operations, such as navigation or communications for logistics companies resupplying a military operation. 

On a corporate level, the option also exists for a hostile takeover or other economic routes that can be leveraged to impede a commercial operator’s ability to support military operations (such as buying all capacity at a premium rate).

In a similar vein, Davis points to the growth of large corporate organisations that are led by big personalities who may consider themselves above geopolitics and who make corporate decisions that can considerably disrupt both technology and economics. As they follow sector trends, the moves these decision-makers’ companies make can impact international politics in multiple ways.

To illustrate, he points to the term ‘NewGround’: “We all know of the term ’NewSpace,’ which is being used to encompass the burgeoning commercialisation of space technology. But now there’s a corresponding movement occurring with infrastructure on the ground — ’NewGround.’ This sector will pioneer a fully-digitised and virtualised ground infrastructure.” 

The result? It will transform relevant economics, engagement models and technologies, rapidly expanding the accessibility of satellite communications across the globe and decentralising control from any specific government. “Definitely a space to watch”, he concludes.

Dave Davis is a Chartered Engineer with a seasoned background in Satellite Communications (Satcom). Beginning his career with the British Army, he was awarded the MBE in 2002 for meritorious military service. It was during his time in service that went on to specialise in Satcom. After the army, Dave went into industry and continued to build his professional qualifications. He joined NSSLGlobal, a leading Satcom distribution partner, working his way up the ranks to Engineering Manager. He led many cutting-edge projects and was responsible for providing communications to many high-profile expeditions, events and deployments. In 2013, he joined ST Engineering iDirect as the European defence and security specialist, before moving to be the lead engineer supporting the ground-breaking Inmarsat Global Xpress (GX) network. He is now providing technical leadership on global government and defence activities at ST Engineering iDirect.

Dave sits on various national and international panels as a technical advisor and is a non-exec Director on the board of the Institute of Telecommunications Professionals (ITP).

Nik Smith is the Regional Director for UK and Europe for Lockheed Martin Space and leads the Lockheed Martin UK Space business unit. Prior to his current position, Nik was the Head of Business Development for the UK for the Lockheed Martin UK Space business area.

Before joining Lockheed Martin, Nik served for 16 years in the Royal Air Force as a communication engineer. His first role was as a spacecraft operations officer, operating the UK’s Skynet military satellite communications constellation. Subsequent positions include roles in acquisition, ICT delivery, operational planning, cyber and information assurance. Nik’s final tour was as part of the British Defense Staff in the British Embassy in Washington DC, supporting bilateral activity related to communications, information, space and intelligence.