U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin signed off last month on a strategy document that tells the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Space Force to figure out how to share data on the battlefield.
Space-based communications will be at the core of this strategy known as Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2).
JADC2 is the latest attempt by the Pentagon to speed up the military’s transition into the digital age. The plan is based on the idea that the United States can gain an advantage over enemies if U.S. commanders can see what’s happening across the battlefield in real time.
The military also wants to use artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to analyze data collected by sensors on satellites and aircraft. But that’s hard to do today because data resides in segregated silos and there’s no fast or easy way to move it around.
Lt. Gen. Dennis Crall, chief information officer for the Joint Staff, told reporters this month that Austin’s endorsement is an important first step to bring JADC2 from concept to real-world operations. “We have been given the clear signal to begin,” he said.
The Army, Navy and Air Force in recent months have started experiments connecting platforms and have created “cross-functional teams” to coordinate JADC2 efforts.
The services will try to figure out, for example, how information collected by satellites and drones would be disseminated and shared with troops on the ground or ships at sea.
“We want to avoid proprietary solutions. We want data-sharing. We want to have the ability to fuse data together in ways that are nimble, like industry does today,” Crall said.
To be able to share data across the globe, the military will need resilient and secure networks. That’s where satellite communications come in.
“Data relay, comms through space is what will enable JADC2,” said Gen. David Thompson, vice chief of space operations of the Space Force. He said the Joint Staff has assigned the Space Force responsibility for identifying space-based capabilities that will be needed for joint command and control.
High on that list will be satellite-based communications to expedite the movement of data. The military today relies primarily on government-owned and commercial geostationary satellites. The Space Force also plans to buy satcom from commercial providers of broadband from low Earth orbit.
JADC2 has stringent security requirements so DoD is investing in its own space communications network.
Crall said DoD wants technology solutions “that work on the tactical edge.” A communications service that performs very well in the national capital region might not work “in an austere environment coming out of the back of an airplane or at sea,” he said.
A proliferated network of small satellites in low Earth orbit is now being assembled by the Space Development Agency (SDA) to serve as the backbone for JADC2.
SDA’s constellation, known as the Transport Layer, is designed to pass data around the globe securely and with minimum delay, said SDA’s director Derek Tournear.
“The Transport Layer will tie all the JADC2 networks for all the services together, so that we can have this unified means to be able to provide information,” he said.
SDA now reports to the secretary of defense but will be reorganized under the Space Force next year. The agency plans to launch the first batch of satellites in late 2022 and add hundreds more in subsequent years.
SDA satellites will be connected via laser links to other satellites in the network, to military aircraft, ships and ground command centers. Each SDA satellite will have three to five optical links. This will help protect the network from cyber threats as laser beams are far more difficult to detect or intercept than radio-frequency communications signals.
Following Austin’s approval of JADC2 as the guiding strategy, the military services now have to come together to make it work.
Global business today is driven by data and AI but this is a relatively new thing for military organizations that tend to focus on more tangible pursuits like next-generation fighter aircraft, ships and tanks.
In JADC2, Crall said, “it is all about the data, which makes this different.”
Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.
“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the June 2021 issue.