WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force in its 2024 budget allocated $59 million to buy satellite communications services from SES’ new broadband constellation in medium Earth orbit known as O3b mPower.
The purchase was made under a NATO contracting vehicle established last year for countries to acquire commercial satcom services. Both the U.S. and Luxembourg have agreed to buy mPower satcom services under NATO’s Global Commercially Contracted Satellite Communications.
Under the agreement, a portion of the O3b mPower constellation will be assigned to the U.S. and Luxembourg for defense and security uses.
SES is a global satellite operator headquartered in Luxembourg. The services to the U.S. military are provided by the company’s U.S. subsidiary SES Space & Defense, based in Reston, Virginia.
This procurement of satcom services is “an example of what we’re doing with international partners and with commercial industry,” Lt. Gen. Phillip Garrant, deputy chief of space operations for strategy, plans, programs and requirements, told SpaceNews in a recent interview.
Access to commercial satcom services from all available orbits is important for resiliency, he said. “It gives us diversity, high throughput, low-latency satcom.”
DoD for years has been a customer of SES’ O3b constellation in medium Earth orbit (MEO) but this is the company’s first military contract for the next-generation mPower satellites. The first two of 11 planned mPower satellites launched to orbit in December on a SpaceX rocket. SES says each will provide 10 times more throughput than the legacy O3b satellites.
Jay Icard, senior vice president of SES Space & Defense, told SpaceNews that current U.S. military users of the O3b satcom service will be able to access mPower from their existing ground terminals.
U.S. seeks more partnerships
DoD’s purchase of mPower satcom services was first announced in February by Deanna Ryals, director of international affairs at the Space Force’s Space Systems Command.
In a speech at the GovSatcom conference in Luxembourg, Ryals said her office had been in discussions for some time with Luxembourg’s ministry of defense about setting up a partnership that would serve as a model for other countries to join.
“We’re going into a future that’s focused on hybrid architectures, resiliency and combined warfighting capabilities,” Ryals said. The U.S. Space Force, she said, is “building a hybrid architecture that includes our commercial partners and our international partners’ national sovereign systems.”
The MEO layer in the architecture, she said, will be called “DoD mPower.”
“This is the future,” Ryals added. “All of our future architectures are going to look like this … a combination of DoD purpose built, our allies’ national sovereign systems, and commercial capabilities.”
Agreements for polar satcom
With regard to government-owned satcom systems, she said, the U.S. is interested in partnering with allies that are investing in sovereign national systems such as Australia and the United Kingdom.
“We’re trying to figure out how do we work together from the beginning, and how do we take advantage of the capabilities each is building?” Ryals said.
“Canada will be building another Polar Satellite Communication project later in the 2020s. We’re looking at how we collaborate for the high north. Norway is looking at their follow-on system,” she said. “These are systems in areas where the United States doesn’t have to go it alone anymore.”
The U.S. Space Force, meanwhile, is seeking partners for government-owned communications satellites, including the newest Wideband Global Satcom WGS-12 that Congress funded in the 2023 defense budget.
The WGS constellation, with 10 satellites in orbit and one scheduled to launch in 2025, already has multiple international partners, Ryals added. “WGS-12 is now real. We’re actively working with our international partners to figure out how do we do this again.”
The Space Force also is eyeing international partners for its future Protected Tactical Satcom constellation, Ryals said.
An issue that gets in the way of partnerships are U.S. restrictions on the sharing of information with foreign nationals, she said. “One of the biggest challenges that we have had to date working with our allies and partners, and often with our commercial industry, is the ability to share information.”
Documents related to space programs, for example, are stamped “NoForn” so they can’t be shared. Ryals said the Space Force wants to move to a “YesForn” policy that would allow exchanges with allies and partners. “The United States Department of Defense is working on new policies and strategies to remove those barriers to information sharing,” he said. “and you will see those changes this year.”