Home >> November 2014 Edition >> There’s No Room for Traditional VSAT Systems In Today’s Complex ISR Ops
There’s No Room for Traditional VSAT Systems In Today’s Complex ISR Ops
By Koen Willems, Senior Contributor


You only need to flick through the newspapers these days to read that there are a large number of active conflicts around
the world.

Image courtesy of U.S. Air Force

At the time of this writing (Wednesday, September 10th, 2014) the newspaper headlines talk about how Obama will unveil his strategy to widen his ISIS campaign in Iraq, the fragile Ukraine and Gaza ceasefire declarations, the unresolved conflicts in Syria and Libya and the numerous civil wars in Africa.

ISR in a Complex, Globalized World
After the expensive and long interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, world leaders are reluctant to send in “boots on the ground” to resolve the numerous conflicts. As such, the types of intervention by coalition forces and international peacekeeping organizations have drastically changed over the last couple of years.

Crisis management operations now focus on peacekeeping, the global fight against terrorist organizations and humanitarian relief-efforts. In a globalized world, problems need to be dealt with when and where they emerge before they threaten the economic, social, political or cultural stability of entire nations. Geographic distance is no longer an assurance of protection. 

Crisis management operations are typically limited in time, rely heavily on airborne assets and turn to ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) input to ensure missions are as efficient as possible. The role of ISR has grown as crisis management takes center stage on the world’s political stage. In fact, ISR has become an integral part of every operation.  

During a crisis management operation, a set of ISR tools work in full orchestration with tactical, operational and strategic assets. These tools include:

• HUMINT (Human Intelligence) tools
• SIGINT (Signal Intelligence) tools
• COMINT (Communications Intelligence) tools
• MASINT (Measurement and Signature Intelligence) tools
• ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) tools
• IMINT (Imagery Intelligence) tools

The collected products from these ISR sources provide policy makers and operational units in the theater with detailed information to enable correct and quick decision-making. 

Depending on the operation, a large quantity of ISR information is exchanged from the theater or disaster area to the collection management tools in the operations center for analysis and processing. This information can then be redistributed afterwards to other (inter)national agencies or operational units.

SATCOM for Reliable, Secure + Quick Intelligence Sharing
In order to gather all of this ISR data from various sources and platforms located in remote and hostile areas, satellite communications provide a reliable, secure and quick solution for information sharing. Satellite networks are particularly relied upon when:

• A man-made or natural disaster strikes and the terrestrial communication infrastructure is the first to go down
• Operating in beyond line of sight (BLoS) modus
• Collecting data from ISR platforms on-the-move (airframes, vessels, land vehicles)
• The incumbent terrestrial telecom infrastructure in the disaster area is not reliable or is insecure

The different crisis management operations today already deploy a good number of VSAT systems to support their ISR activities. However, there is room for improvement in order to support the complex operating environments and to increase operational efficiency. Looking at today’s and future requirements for ISR operations, we can easily address seven main concerns:

• The need for more data/video throughput to support bandwidth hungry sensors (HD video, Multispectral data and so on)
• The ability to deploy and connect any time, anywhere 
• The importance of service availability in order not to interrupt mission critical communications during a mission
• The ease of use and the ability to set up a link quickly
• The growing budget constraints
• Secure communications that cannot be compromised
• The possibility to exchange information quickly in a joint operation between different units, nations and platforms 
(fixed, mobile)

HTS Constellations + SATCOM Technology Providers to the Rescue
To address the above concerns a combined effort between technology providers for the ground segment and the satellite operators is required. Different high throughput satellite (HTS) programs were recently announced, or placed into service, by both the commercial (Intelsat EPIC, Global Xpress, etc.) and military operators (WGS, Athena Fidus, etc.). These HTS programs allow ISR missions to increase their overall data throughput, provide connectivity on a worldwide scale and support both fixed and on-the-move applications. Ground infrastructure equipment is still required to make sure that satellite communications over these constellations run in an efficient and smooth manner. 

No Room for Traditional VSAT Solution in a Complex ISR Environment
Referring back to the complex environments and growing concerns in ISR operations nowadays, there is no room any longer for traditional VSAT systems. In fact, the VSAT platform deployed for ISR missions needs to be multi-purpose, multi-service and multi-functional.

At the operations center, ISR data is collected from different sources, different platforms and different remote locations at the same time. The size and type of the return link will differ, depending upon the activity level, on the type of service (voice, video, data), the application (exchanging monitoring, sensors or biometric data etc.) and the platform (UAVs, manned aircrafts, fixed sensors, etc.). In other words, these return links connected to the hub would need to support traffic from a few kilobits to a tenfold of megabits in an efficient way. That is a reverse philosophy compared to traditional VSAT systems where you typically have a fat forward link from hub to the remotes and only small return links to enable Internet access for consumer or enterprise customers.

A VSAT platform purposed for ISR applications should take three basic principles into consideration: flexibility, scalability and efficiency. 

In a complex environment where it is difficult to predict where the next man-made or natural disaster will strike, or when ISR capabilities need to be deployed, the VSAT platform needs to be flexible enough to cope with constantly changing conditions. From the hub side, multiple satellites should be addressable in case the conflict spreads over multiple footprints and should be able to support different ISR operations in different regions simultaneously. Independence from satellite frequency or constellation is also important in order to groom the satellite network elements quickly toward a new conflict area.

ISR collection management tools do not gather their information from a single source. Depending on the situation at hand, the pattern of data flow coming from any theater can be quite varied. We are talking about different services and traffic types produced by a range of platforms that need to be handled by a single multi-service hub.

In operation mode, when a parameter intrusion is detected and bandwidth hungry sensors are activated, the satellite network needs to be able to switch smoothly from low data to high data rate throughput to support HD video and other sensor modes without packet loss. The VSAT platform should be in constant listening mode, ready to change depending on the data traffic, which is being derived from all the terminals in the network.

As soon as traffic throughput changes for a certain terminal, the VSAT system must be able to adapt bandwidth, power, MODCODs, frequency plan and symbol rate on the fly. The VSAT systems should always take channel conditions, such as fading, terminal population, QoS rules and priorities, into full account. 

Flexibility also applies to the VSAT terminals population in the theater. These terminals are mounted on the diverse ISR platforms (UAV, manned aircraft, fixed sensors, SIGINT network, and so on) and need to take certain size, weight and power, as well as environmental conditions and the connected service into account. As such, the VSAT technology supplier must be able to offer a range of modems or terminals that fit the specific ISR application. Moreover, all of the different terminal types need to be connected to a single VSAT hub.  

Each ISR mission is different. The number of deployed ISR tools and the allocated budget will vary, depending upon the mission objective(s) and the severity of the crisis. Obviously, ISR operators do not want to purchase a new VSAT platform for every single operation. They need a multi-purpose VSAT system that scales to the operation at hand.

The VSAT system can start as a small ISR network, connecting only a few sensors in a single satellite footprint, then grow as the operation becomes more important into a multi-satellite, multi-gateway and multi-service ISR platform that connects the theater with different national and international agencies. The DoDs of the different nations will appreciate the fact that they can start with a VSAT system that fits their program and can add functionalities, services, licenses and terminals for future missions. This means that they do no need to spend their full budget from day one.  When an assignment has ended, both the hub and terminals can be repurposed for other programs. 

Efficiency can be defined both on the technology and on the operational level. Obviously both are closely linked. At the start of a conflict, it is possible that the satellite coverage over the region could be rather scarce. National agencies, international organizations and NGOs will try to get maximum satellite bandwidth to start-up their crisis management initiatives. 

As a direct result, the demand for satellite capacity overtakes availability. State-of-the art VSAT systems will already solve part of that problem as they house the latest efficiency technology, which squeezes the maximum bit out of every Hertz. In relation to the new HTS constellations, the throughput results will be even better. On the other hand, efficient VSAT platforms give the agencies the chance to increase their network with extra services or additional platforms within the same bandwidth. These extras bits of detailed information improve the decision making process. 

During an ISR operation it is key to maintain the mission critical link over satellite, even in the harshest circumstances like fading conditions or on mobile platforms. A split second of connectivity loss might mean that crucial information is overlooked and results in bad decision-making. ISR operators demand maximum service availability and the ability to respect SLAs, even with CIR requirements in links suffering from variable bandwidth conditions.

Finally, the operational efficiency of an ISR mission depends on how quickly a service over satellite can be established during a conflict to enable instant intelligence sharing. The terminal must be quickly deployed and the satellite easily acquired, even for operational personnel with limited experience or formal education in SATCOM technology, and the sensors or data sources must be quickly connected. ISR units in theater do not have the luxury of wasting time. Before the link is established and the data starts to be transmitted, the ISR operator needs to be certain that the link is secured and the captured information cannot be compromised.

The Key to Successful ISR Operations over Satellite
The bad news is that the number of conflicts and disasters around the world has certainly not reduced in number. On the contrary, these challenges result in an increased complexity fore ISR operations in a globalized world.

The good news is that VSAT technology has evolved—state-of-the-art multi-service VSAT platforms, in conjunction with HTS constellations, support complex ISR assignments in a flexible, scalable and efficient manner.

For more details and more information on multi-service VSAT platforms, I kindly refer you to the documentation set on the Newtec Dialog Multiservice Satellite Platform at http://www.newtec.eu

About the author
Koen Willems started his career in 1998 with Lernout&Hauspie as a project manager in the Consulting & Services division. More recently, he joined Toshiba as a Product Marketing Manager for the Benelux and, later, for the European market. In a total of 6 years, Koen contributed to all of the  major Toshiba Retail IT product releases. Mr. Willems is, currently the Market Director for Government and Defense for Newtec, a Belgium-based specialist in satellite communications.