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Video Analysis Above: Drone Fighter Jet vs. Manned Fighter Jet .. Who Wins?

By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington, D.C.) When an Air Force fighter jet or bomber closes in on a high-value target area, poised for attack, or an Army ground unit moves to contact with an enemy, success or failure of a given high-risk mission can often hang in the balance of what can be described in two words – satellite networking.

A sufficiently hardened, multi-directional signal can ensure that pilots quickly receive target coordinates, navigational detail or sensitive threat information of great relevance to the mission. Should target accuracy be compromised, signal fidelity jammed or flight path be compromised by threats from unanticipated directions, mission objectives can of course be destroyed and lives are put at risk.

Given this, high-throughput, multi-frequency, multi-directional antennas, coupled with secure “meshed” networking between satellites, are considered crucial to war planners looking to favor success in missions by increasing the strength and speed of space connectivity.

"We are looking at how we can use satellites to enhance the speed of targeting," Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told Warrior during a recent experiment in Arizona.

With all this in mind, the Air Force Research Laboratory is moving quickly on an interesting deal with SES Government Solutions and Isotropic Systems to achieve new levels of “next-gen” connectivity. The AFRL deal, which includes input from the U.S. Army Research Engineering Team, is testing Isotropic Systems’ emerging multi-beam terminal over SES’s O3b Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) satellite constellation.

As part of the deal, the U.S. Air Force and Army, through the innovative Defense Experimentation Using Commercial Space Internet program, will review a prototype of Isotropic Systems’ optical beamforming antenna and its ability to connect simultaneously with two satellite constellations at GEO (Geostationary Earth Orbit) and MEO. The unique multi-beam capability will enable the armed forces to deliver data at the tactical edge by leveraging capacity from multiple commercial and military satellites over a single antenna platform, according to Brian Billman, Vice President of Product Management for Isotropic Systems. “Without affecting the main comms link, Isotropic Systems’ multi-beam terminal can evaluate situational awareness in real time, preemptively seeking multiple communications pathways in the event of signal jamming or blockages or to ensure maximum performance.”

Isotropic Systems’ new Optical Lens Technology will integrate with SES’ O3b MEO satellites, including its advanced O3b mPOWER system set to launch late next year into early 2022 along with other new constellations in LEO or Low Earth Orbit.

"The Isotropic antenna will deliver high throughput, at low latency over a MEO constellation with simultaneous resilient GEO capacity. This is a game changer for the U.S. Army,” Pete Hoene, President and CEO of SES Government Solutions, said in a company statement.

Isotropic Systems and SES’ collaborative effort to improve satellite connectivity, networking and throughput aligns closely with the U.S. Army’s current work to harden space connectivity, increase secure space-air-ground networking and vastly quicken the “kill web” to reduce sensor-to-shooter time.

MEO, GEO and LEO satellites were recently assessed in a cutting edge Army experiment in the Arizona Desert called Project Convergence 2020. During the exercise, an armored combat vehicle in the Arizona engaged in a “direct fire” mission to destroy an enemy tank target, after receiving targeting cues via radio from an overhead surveillance drone, mini-drone and helicopter, however informational details and locations specifics on the target first came from fast-moving, low-altitude satellites operated in Washington State.

The O3b MEO satellites operated by SES successfully leveraged advanced connectivity to quickly find and transmit target data across large portions of the U.S., demonstrating new levels of cross-domain attack.

A series of lower-altitude Medium and Low Earth Orbit satellites delivered real-time targeting data through command centers at Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington State to live attack experiments across the Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona, bringing new dimensions to high-speed, long-range targeting.

“What you saw here was the first phase of information being fed by MEO, GEO and LEO satellites. That is what was going through Washington State into a surrogate ground control station, which delivered the data,” Maj. Gen. John George, Commanding General of the Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command, Army Futures Command, told The National Interest in an interview on the ground at Yuma.

The exercise leveraged emerging technology from LEO and MEO satellites, new satellite applications intended to increase “mesh” networking beyond the existing capability of existing GEO satellites.

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“We’ve been reliant upon GEO for decades. LEO and MEO satellites, being much closer to the Earth, dramatically reduce the latency that is inherent in satellite communications. They increase the throughput for more data. With the smaller form factor we can get more points of presence on the battlefield closer to the tactical edge,” an expert Army engineer told Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy at Project Convergence.

The accelerated targeting technology used in Project Convergence 2020 was part of a large-scale Army effort to fight war and target enemies at “speed,” exponentially faster than any current processes. Overall, networking satellites, drones, mini-drones and ground attack weapons, enabled by sensor-to-shooter pairing done by an AI system called FIRESTORM, change the Army paradigm for modern war in a substantial way.

Technologies applied during the experiment were able to quickly align and optimize sensors-with-shooters in as little as 20 seconds, taking a massive breakthrough leap beyond current norms of up to 20 minutes. Drawing upon Isotropic Systems’ multi-beam, multi-orbit optical lens, might even further expedite the efficiency, data throughout and overall speed of this process.

The goal of Isotropic Systems’s technology appears parallel to these objectives, according to Isotropic Systems CEO John Finney, who told me that the intent of its multi-beam antenna is to “fuse and arbitrage multi-band, multi-orbit commercial and military capacity to deliver intelligence data at the tactical edge over a single platform.”

Technically, the antenna transmission draws upon a first-of-its-kind beam-forming optical lens engineered to send precise beams to multiple satellites at the same time, without using the entire circuitry of the system. While phased array antennas continue to be highly effective and widely operational, Isotropic Systems engineers explained that the new high-performance multi-beam antenna is quite different in that it can sustain its power and signal fidelity across multiple bands at the same time.

The value-add with this new technology is its ability to enable a single, smaller-form factor, surface mounted, software-definable antenna that can emit a precise, narrowly configured electronic signal to several satellites at once—all while consuming less on-board power and increasing precision.

It is a single, multi-beam antenna, which relies on Isotropic Systems’ new signal-forming optical lens technology, Billman told TNI in an interview earlier this year.

The advent of better-networked, faster MEO and LEO satellites is moving quickly for the Army and the Pentagon, who plan to deploy as many as 4,500 of the satellites. There are roughly 600 of them deployed thus far, supported by current plans to add up to 60 per month.

“Typically we do it over GEO. We did it here over MEO and LEO, but LEO is still emerging. By PC 21, we believe we will have full 24/7 coverage in North America to continue our experimentation. Once we get to 4,500 satellites within the next year or two, we will have global coverage with LEO,” the Army engineer said.

The increased use of LEO and MEO satellites aligns with several crucial Pentagon space war aims, including a move to improve the connectivity, resilience and survivability of space assets. Connectivity comes in the form of “networking” the LEO satellites to share information and, in effect, blanket areas with coverage across expansive areas by space “nodes” to pass targeting data from one area to another to establish a continuous track.

“Taking information from space-based sensors and passing them to ground and air based effectors seemed really simple and happened superfast, but it was very complex and it took us weeks of hard coding and work to get it done,” Brig. Gen. Ross Coffman, Director, Next-Generation Combat Vehicle Cross Functional Team, Army Futures Command, told reporters at PC20.

LEO and MEO systems can also help sustain space and satellite functionality in the event that some assets in space are destroyed by enemy fire, by building in a needed measure of redundancy. In these circumstances, networked satellites can retain operational mission status if one is jammed or hit by enemy anti-satellite weapons.

“LEOs and MEOs can add resiliency to the network because we have path diversity wherein messages can go multiple routes. They can be configured to support the tactical network,” the Army engineer told Secretary McCarthy.

“The more we talk with the U.S. Army and other defense forces, we’re finding the capabilities of our high-performance multi-beam antenna are really that final key to unlocking their vision of this future of highly-resilient, high-throughput connectivity to empower a new generation of hyper-enabled frontline warfighters,” noted Isotropic Systems’ CEO Finney.

The satellite networking for the Project Convergence effort demonstrated as part of an incremental process enabling a broader Army Combined Arms Maneuver sequence unfolding in phases. Coffman explained that space and aerial sensors were used in what he called the Penetration phase to identify enemy targets. This was then followed by a “disintegration” phase which used operational aircraft to destroy enemy long-range fires, a step leading to the final “exploit” phase wherein ground forces attacked the enemy targets.

-- 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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.