Video: Networked Army Radar Destroys 2 Maneuvering Cruise Missiles

By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington, D.C.) Laser weapons incinerate targets traveling at the speed of light, fire from Navy ships and Army combat vehicles and will likely shoot off from fighter jets or even ICBM interceptors for missile defense in coming years …. But what about laser communications in space to massively expedite networking connectivity? Could laser-enabled optics and photonics offer an ultra high-speed, large bandwidth yet secure and streamlined information transmission within a high-risk, time-sensitive warfare network? Pentagon weapons developers and several industry players now say yes.

In fact, laser light is quickly proving to be an extremely efficient and more secure option for high-speed data connectivity, able to potentially share hundreds of gigabytes of information in a nearly instantaneous fashion between satellites and satellites and air, sea and ground assets. General Atomics is one of a handful of Pentagon industry partners working on laser communications with a collaborative effort with the Space Development Agency to launch small, toaster oven-sized spacecraft capable of laser-generated data sharing. Space is highly conducive to laser applications, given that there are fewer weather obscurants and less beam attenuation beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Laser technology can massively decrease latency, enable much higher-bandwidth for data transmission and speed and even introduce somewhat of a stealth-like ability to be less detectable than traditional RF signals.

“When you think about RF communications you have to think about electromagnetic beams that are quite large. You're talking about something that's somewhere between 300 and several 1000 feet, the signature those satellites create is very, very large. When you're talking about an optical communication laser, those spots are much smaller than that,“ Nick Bucci, vice president for Missile Defense and Space Systems at General Atomics Electromagnetic Systems, told Warrior in an interview.

Laser connectivity in space, Bucci explained, can greatly truncate any geographical gap by quickly networking otherwise dispersed communications nodes across the globe. The prospect of this kind of real-time, long-distance and more secure networking closely aligns with the Pentagon’s rapid push toward “Joint All Domain Command and Control” or JADC2 program which seeks to decrease cross-domain sensor-to-shooter time and engineer a dispersed, yet securely networked series of meshed or interconnected nodes and data points across air, land, sea and space domains and vast distances.

“There are many potential applications for this given the services contribution to JADC2. When you think about it, if I can collect information in space with very vivid sensors then I can see many things across the globe. And I need to get that information to an operator somewhere to enable a human to get the job done,” Bucci said.

General Atomics and the Space Development Agency are preparing for a substantial upcoming demonstration wherein two GA-built 12U CubeSat spacecraft will launch and communicate in space with infrared and laser communication technologies.

“If I can communicate amongst a bunch of different satellites, I'm now able to do that faster. And I can do quick hops within an architecture, if I need to get information from a satellite that is in one part of the world to an operator in another part of the world,” Bucci said.

Once launched in space, two GA satellites will begin to separate, beginning with several hundred miles before expanding ranges to more than 1,000 kilometers. The demonstration will incorporate a number of experiments to assess movements, positioning, how high the bandwidth is and also examine things like latencies, GA developers explained.

“We will be tracking how high the bandwidth is. We will be communicating at two Gigabits up to five Gigabits .. that is our goal,” Bucci said.

The success of space-based laser optics of course relies to a large degree upon an ability to gather, distill, organize and process massive volumes of data, something GA developers sought to address by engineering optical communications terminals.

“We knew that this was going to require a significant amount of infrastructure and therefore a significant amount of terminals we're going to require so we built into our design of our optical communications a modularity and manufacturability we don't believe others have been doing.

And so what it allows us to do is to be able to build a terminal that can communicate at various ranges, various speeds and in various domains,” Bucci added. 

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a master’s degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.