Success in future military conflicts will depend on which side can collect, process and share information to make better decisions faster than their adversary. This is the fundamental imperative behind efforts such as DoD’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control strategy and the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System. A major step in turning these concepts into reality took place in late June when the Space Development Agency launched its first two satellite missions into orbit. A key goal is to demonstrate space-based optical communications — also known as laser communications — between two satellites in low Earth orbit and between a satellite and an MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft.
Laser communications to, from and within space are key to providing U.S. war fighters with information at the speed, scale and level of security needed to conduct all-domain operations while negating the growing ability of China and other adversaries to threaten U.S. communications networks, including our military space systems. The good news is space-based laser communications technologies can transition to operational systems within the next five years — if the Department of Defense makes the right investments.
The underlying technology is not new — laser-based communications systems already transmit tens of terabits of data every second via fiber optic cable networks. But cables are vulnerable, and not feasible for large areas of the world. Therefore, the U.S. military relies primarily on radio frequency-based satellite communications to provide beyond-line-of-sight communications. However, RF communications are also increasingly vulnerable to disruption and denial, and do not meet DoD’s future bandwidth and latency requirements. Fortunately, technological advancements in space-based laser communications systems offer a viable solution to overcome RF SATCOM limitations.
The ability to communicate and exchange information is fundamental to U.S. military success, enabling shared situational awareness, faster and more informed command decisions, and the integration of dispersed forces to meet mission objectives. Modern military operations are increasingly data intensive and dispersed, requiring secure networks to reliably share large amounts of data with low latency over vast distances, across different domains, to large numbers of users. DoD’s communications systems must also support missions despite adversary efforts to degrade or deny them. Both China and Russia are developing and fielding an array of capabilities to locate and attack U.S. communications networks with growing numbers of both kinetic and nonkinetic counterspace weapons.
Space-based laser communications are central to DoD’s plans for JADC2, serving as the backbone that ties all of DoD’s networks together to enable the rapid and seamless exchange of information across platforms, domains, services and coalition partners. In terms of meeting performance requirements, lasers operate in much shorter wavelengths than traditional RF communications, improving data transfer rates by at least an order of magnitude. Shorter wavelengths also enable much narrower transmission beams, reducing power and antenna size requirements. These improvements in size, weight and power — sought after for virtually all military applications — are a particularly important consideration for systems that are launched and maintained on orbit.
The narrow transmission beams of lasers are also very hard for enemies to detect and intercept, which make them more resilient than RF communications. In DoD’s parlance they represent a very low probability of detection/low probability of intercept capability. Simply put, it is hard to locate and attack what you cannot detect. Even if detected and located, laser communications are incredibly difficult to disrupt. It would require shining another laser at exactly the right wavelength and with sufficient power within the very narrow field of view of the targeted laser communications receiver. This is even more challenging when the both transmitter and receiver are moving, as is the case with space-based platforms.
Laser communications enable opportunities to simultaneously meet the demanding communications requirements of war-fighting commanders, while preventing adversaries from denying them the information they need to win. The SDA technology demonstrations underway are critical for concepts like JADC2, transforming the theoretical communications “lightning bolts” seen in so many briefings into reality. However, these efforts are currently underfunded, which as SDA’s FY22 budget request points out negatively impacts their “interoperability testing and tracking demonstration plans” necessary to make laser communications possible. This by extension also introduces schedule and technical risk into new approaches to critical missions that laser communications are intended to enable, including missile defense.
The cost of inaction is high; both China and Russia view information superiority as the central line of effort in future conflicts and are developing the operational concepts and capabilities to achieve it. If data is the “digital lifeblood of modern warfare” as Air Force Director of Joint Force Integration Brig. Gen. Jeffery Valenzia recently said, then investing in laser communications technologies that ensures the right information gets securely to the war fighter, when and where they need it, is paramount.
Lukas Autenried is a senior analyst with the Mitchell Institute Spacepower Advantage Research Center.