Army tests commercial satellite internet in pilot program | Article

Soldiers assigned to the 50th Expeditionary Signal Battalion-Enhanced (ESB-E), 35th Corps Signal Brigade (CSB) are in the early stages of deploying the commercial Starlink satellite system across Europe – enhancing transport diversity options for commanders and data is being distributed through the military network at a faster rate.

The Starlink system, operated by SpaceX, consists of satellites in low Earth orbit that provide high-speed, low-latency broadband internet worldwide. The terminal is small (0.6 meter phased array antenna) and lightweight (16 pounds).

“The advantage of this system is the amount of time it takes for the signal to go into space and come back down; it saves us a lot of latency,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Kyle Neese, the battalion’s senior network engineer for the 50th ESB-E. “The old military satellite communication system (SATCOM) uses what is called geosynchronous [satellites], which orbits the equator at a steady pace, but takes a little over half a second for the signal to go up and down. With Starlink, it comes back more than twice as fast.”

The 35th CSB aims to use the Starlink system to achieve faster broadband and increase internet speed to support the XVIII Airborne Corps war fighters and their mission command systems.

“The Starlink terminal is used to provide tactical network speeds of up to 70 Mbps with about 1/3 the normal latency over military SATCOM,” says Neese. “Tests are still being conducted to further increase these speeds to support troops on the ground.”

SpaceX is also testing the creation of a miniature mobile satellite antenna to make the Starlink system more portable.

“So far we have tested version one that comes with a dish, a power injector and a router. The easiest way to connect the Starlink to our kit is to take an Ethernet cable and plug it into our router, which connects to our Cradle Point router and the Cradle Point router connects to our other systems as normal,” said Warrant Officer Corey McClure, a network engineer for the 50th ESB-E. in terms of where we can settle and what we can do.”

Work is underway on compatibility of the Starlink system with some of the current SATCOM equipment in use by the military.

“Starlink’s data rates exceed some of our current capabilities,” said Lt. Col. Mallory Wampler, the commander of the 50th ESB-E. “I know they are still making some engineering and design tweaks to make the equipment more robust, such as our 1.2m Hawkeye terminal, T2C2, and our Phoenix E systems.”

Wampler said she hopes to continue using Commercial Off The Shelf equipment to keep pace with technology improvements. “We are always looking for the most redundant primary, alternate, contingency and contingency plan or PACE plan to support the war fighter and all mission command systems.”

From the first implementation of this new equipment, the 50th ESB-E, 35th CSB has led the way in testing the Starlink system to meet today’s demand for signal equipment.

“We had the opportunity to work with the joint staff during the Bold Quest exercise last summer,” Wampler said. “We’ve learned that it adds significant power to the formation, which is good to align with our scalability. Bandwidth throughput is the most critical factor with this new equipment, and I think it ties in directly with the efforts of the 18th Airborne Corps when it comes to innovation and modernization. This is the future and I’m excited to see where this equipment can take us.”

As part of the XIII Airborne Corps’ Dragon Innovation Program, the 35th CSB is educating senior leaders on innovative ways to increase mission readiness in Corps Signal Brigades (CSB) as part of the Army’s modernization efforts.
(Photo Credit: Spc. Maxine Baen)

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