Receiving you Loud and Clear

This is an article published in our March 2018 Issue.

The UK Ministry of Defence uses Skynet as its Tactical Satellite (Tac SAT) provider, here being used by British forces in Afghanistan. Airbus Defence and Space has moved its Skynet 5A military satellite to increase its coverage of the Asia Pacific. (MoD)

Space-based communications and surveillance systems have become indispensable to armed forces in the era of networked warfare, which is premised upon reliable and efficient connectivity between sensors, platforms, weapons, and warfighters throughout the battlespace.

With increasingly sophisticated threats being posed by military and non-state opponents, the modern warfighter requires a means to access critical information on demand for situational awareness. In addition to meeting warfighting requirements, armed forces must also consider providing their troops the ability to communicate home to maintain their morale and psychological well-being. As most young warfighters are young men and women who have grown up with communication devices in their hands, they expect to be able to maintain contact with home regardless of where they are deployed in the world.

This can be a challenge for expeditionary or maritime forces which are typically spread across a wide area of responsibility (AOR) and almost always over the horizon, particularly for forces deployed in the Asia Pacific. With terrestrial networks based on radio and fibre-optic cables limited in range by line of sight (LOS) and geography, space-based solutions such as satellite communications (SATCOM) are essential.

However, given the communications satellite development is a costly and technically complex activity that remain out of reach for some Asia Pacific countries, SATCOM connectivity provided by commercial satellite service providers is becoming as essential to the military as the bandwidth it provides and data it delivers.


Cognisant of this growing opportunity, global SATCOM service provider Inmarsat is aiming to boost its regional presence with its range of high bandwidth services. These include the L-band Alphasat satellite network and the Ka-band (26.5-40 GHz) Global Xpress (GX) satellite network which offer military and commercial users download speeds of up to 50Mbps across the world. The company’s latest $1.6 billion GX network became operational in December 2015, and now comprises four high-speed, Ka-band, mobile broadband communications satellites.

According to Inmarsat, the first GX satellite I-5 F1 was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 6 December 2013 to serve Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia; I-5 F2 was launched on 1 February 2015 to serve the Americas and the Atlantic Ocean region; I-5 F3 was launched on 28 August 2015 to serve the Pacific Ocean region; and I-5 F4 was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on 15 May 2017 to provide additional capacity. Each I-5 satellite is expected to have a commercial life of 15 years.

The company offers three main services under its Inmarsat 4 network, comprising the Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) for land, FleetBroadband for maritime, and SwiftBroadband for aeronautical services. These services operate in the L-band (1-2 GHz) which provides resilient operation in inclement weather, which the company claims is a particularly useful feature for the tropical environment of Southeast Asia.

Inmarsat has also developed another innovative SATCOM-based communication service called the L-TAC, which enhances tactical radio systems with a beyond line-of-sight communication capability. Using Spectra’s Slingshot appliqué device, a portable antenna, and an associated power supply unit, the service can convert tactical UHF/VHF (ultra high-frequency/very high frequency) radios, including Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS) and Bowman-type systems, into satellite-enabled devices. According to Spectra, Slingshot is available in manpack, vehicle-mounted, and maritime form factors.

Inmarsat has partnered with Spectra Group to bring enhanced beyond line of sight communications capabilities to dismounted troops. (Spectra Group)

Airbus Defence and Space

Skynet is a constellation of hardened X-band (7.9 to 8.4GHz transmit and 7.25 to 7.75GHz receive) military communications satellites, operated by Airbus Defence and Space on behalf of the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD), which provide strategic communication services to the UK armed forces. Skynet presently comprises eight satellites and the associated ground control systems, which are also accessible by NATO forces engaged on coalition operations and allied governments, such as the other members of the five-eyes intelligence community (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US).

The company announced in March 2015 that its Skynet 5A satellite will journey approximate 67,000km from its original 6° East position (covering Europe, the Middle East and Africa) to its new location of 95° East to address increasing demand for high throughput secure X-band communications over eastern Asia Pacific region including Australia. The company subsequently declared in September that the satellite arrived at its intended orbit, broadening coverage and services from 178° West to 163° East to include the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific regions.

“[The] announcement that Airbus will be moving one of the UK’s Skynet 5 satellites to the eastern Asia Pacific region is clear proof of how much our relationships with our international allies matter,” then UK defence minister Philip Dunne noted. “This is the first time that we have had a secure communications capability in the region, and shows the depth of our commitment to our allies and partners, including Malaysia, in humanitarian and peacekeeping operations.”

With the satellite in place, Airbus Defence and Space is also partnering with service providers to deliver new military SATCOM services to the region. The company signed Florida-based CopaSAT in February 2016 as its new channel partner for Skynet services, primarily using the relocated Skynet 5A. CopaSAT will be offering Skynet services as part of a proven and assured portfolio to their US government and military users in the Pacific Rim, Asia, and in the Arabian Peninsula.

Airbus Defence and Space has also partnered with CopaSAT and its SATCOM terminal supplier Tampa Microwave to conduct a series of successful network tests with Skynet 5A. CopaSAT teams, employing CopaSAT’s teleport infrastructure and Tampa Microwave’s remote manpack and fly-away terminals, as well as various other small terminals, conducted end-to-end testing to validate the operation of an entire network and the performance of Skynet 5A at its new orbital slot.

Since 2016, the company has added at least four more firms – SpeedCast, Inmarsat Government, Hughes Network Systems, and more recently Planet Communications Asia Public to its channel partner programme for Skynet services.

SpeedCast will offer tactical secure communications services to the Australian and New Zealand governments. SpeedCast has also been appointed to manage a new anchor station facility for Skynet 5A, which is based at the company’s existing teleport in Adelaide, Australia.

Inmarsat Government and Hughes Network Systems will include Skynet services as part of their service portfolio to US government customers, with the latter offering its services for the US forces involved in tactical missions, primarily using the XEBRA service which employs the Hughes HM300 lightweight X-band satellite terminal.

China Satellite Communications (China Satcom)

Although primarily configured to serve the vast domestic market for commercial, government, and military communications, China Satcom – which was acquired by aerospace and defence prime China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) in April 2009 part of reforms to China’s telecommunications industry.

According to the company, it presently operates at least 10 known geostationary communications and broadcasting satellites, including Apstar-5, Apstar-7, Apstar-6, Apstar-9, ChinaSat 5A, ChinaSat 6A, ChinaSat 6B, ChinaSat 9, ChinaSat 9A, ChinaSat 10, ChinaSat 11, ChinaSat 12, ChinaSat 15, and ChinaSat 16. These provide coverage over Africa, Australia, China, Europe the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. With this constellation, ChinaSat offers short- and long-term services to international customers, which it is actively pushing to countries located along China’s Belt and Road Initiative as part of China’s wider charm offensive to bring their governments to Beijing’s embrace.

For short-term requirements, ChinaSat provides specific satellite transponder resources on a temporary basis and allocates service time and bandwidth on demand. It is also offering a long-term leasing service to provide assured frequencies and bandwidth for customers requiring services spanning several years.

To provide connectivity to international customers, Chinese firms have also developed a range of indigenous SATCOM-On-The-Move (SOTM) systems for land and naval applications.

Shaanxi Tianyi Antenna has developed the Seal SAT900L-A1 low-profile SOTM terminal for land-based applications. The SAT900L-A1 employs a hybrid mechanical and electronically steerable passive waveguide array planar panel antenna and operates in the Ku-band, receiving in the 12.25 to12.75GHz frequency range and transmitting in the 14 to 14.5GHz frequency range.

Shaanxi Tianyi Antenna’s Seal SAT900L-A1 is a low profile terminal providing on-the-move connectivity for tactical operations. (Shaanxi)

The SAT900L-A1 measures 138cm in diameter and features a reflector aperture size of 0.9m, with a height of less than 51.5cm with its radome attached. The company also offers other low-profile terminals in 0.3m, 0.35m. and 0.6m aperture sizes. The company has incorporated a dual-axis stabilised tracking capability, which ensures reliable connection even during high speed manoeuvres and when traversing difficult terrain.

For maritime operations, Xian Satpro Measurement and Control Technology is offering it’s a range of C-, Ka-, and Ku-band very small aperture terminals (VSAT), which includes the K100 1.0m lightweight Ku-band terminal for small to medium-sized vessels. The system receives in the 10.7-12.75GHz frequency range and transmits in the 13.75-14.5GHz frequency range.

The K100, which measures 120cm in diameter,130cm in height, and weighs 70kg, was launched in 2015. It has been designed for coastal patrol craft and offshore patrol vessels with a compact footprint and three-axis stabilisation which compensates for ship motion.

by JR Ng