Broadband Satellite Communications for Future U.S. Military and Coast Guard Operations in an Ice-Free Arctic

Broadband Satellite Communications for Future U.S. Military and Coast Guard Operations in an Ice-Free Arctic

The Aerospace Corporation is exploring possibilities for satellite broadband services in the Arctic, as that region is rapidly changing because of ice melt.

Patrick L. Smith, Leslie A. Wickman, and Inki A. Min

First published Summer 2011, Crosslink® magazine.


U.S. Navy sailors and members of the Applied Physics Laboratory Ice Station clear ice from the hatch of the USS Connecticut as it surfaces above the ice during ICEX 2011, an Arctic exercise conducted by the Navy. Courtesy of U.S. Navy.


During the past 23 years, 41 percent of the perennial Arctic ice has melted. Between 2004 and 2005 alone, 14 percent was lost. The volume of ice at the peak of the 2009 annual freeze was the lowest on record, (until March 2011) and of that, only 30 percent was thick, slow-melting multiyear ice. The Northwest Passage briefly opened in 2007, and could soon become a busy navigation route, cutting about 7000 kilometers from the shipping routes between Asia and Europe.

At the same time, a U.S. Geological Survey report suggests that the Arctic seabed may hold as much as 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas reserves. Sovereign rights to energy resources in the Arctic seabed remain largely undetermined under international law. The U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea provides a general legal framework to govern the use of the world’s oceans and resources, and the major players in the region are scrambling for evidence to bolster their claims under the treaty (which has not yet been ratified by the United States).

The U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and other military services have begun planning for increased operations in the Arctic, which is predicted to become essentially ice-free in summers as early as 2025. To assist the military’s efforts, The Aerospace Corporation began a study in 2007 to determine the impacts of climate change on future national security space requirements, including manufacturing and launch operations—with a particular focus on the need for broadband satellite communications in the Arctic to support increased U.S. fleet and Coast Guard operations.

Satellite Coverage of the Arctic Region

The Arctic is very different from lower latitudes in regard to space system constraints and capabilities. Weather and imaging satellites have excellent coverage because their inclined sun-synchronous orbits put them in view on every pass. On the other hand, passive imagery for ice monitoring and other types of surveillance is hampered by persistent cloud cover and seasonal darkness. GPS is available, but the lower elevation angles to the satellites and increased ionospheric effects somewhat reduce positioning accuracy.

Communications in the Arctic region are quite limited. Dedicated U.S. military communication satellites typically fly in equatorial geostationary orbits (GEO), which are below the 10-degree elevation constraint on most terminals within the Arctic region and therefore not accessible. Options for 24/7 Arctic coverage include three satellites in 90 degree inclined geosynchronous orbits; four satellites in medium altitude elliptical (or “magic”) orbits; three satellites in “tundra” elliptical 63.4 degrees inclined geosynchronous orbits; or two satellites in highly elliptical molniya orbits.

The most efficient constellation for dedicated Arctic communications is a phased two-satellite molniya constellation. However, molniya satellites have different payload and antenna designs, ground-station connectivity, and user terminals than GEO satellites. Terminal antennas must continuously track satellites in molniya orbits and switch between them as they move in and out of view. Also, because it is too costly to maintain a spare satellite in each orbital plane, a satellite failure in a molniya constellation will result in a periodic gap in coverage, which would probably take many months to remedy through the launch of a replacement satellite, whereas in GEO, a spare satellite is easily shifted to take a failed satellite’s place.

Ice cap map

Researchers from NASA, the National Snow and Ice Data Center, and others using satellite data detected a significant loss in Arctic sea ice in 2005. Satellites have made continual observations of Arctic sea ice extent since 1978, and the 2005 data showed the extent had dropped to 2.05 million square miles, the lowest levels yet recorded. Courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

There are established U.S. military requirements for communications support for submarines, aircraft, and other platforms and forces operating in the high northern latitudes (as in all other theaters), but these requirements do not take into account increased military and Coast Guard operations in the region as a result of accelerated Arctic melting. At lower latitudes, there are several ways to surge military communications capacity, such as repositioning geosynchronous satellites, leasing commercial satellite transponders, and linking to fiber networks. None of these options is feasible in the Arctic region.

The current Interim Polar System (IPS) and follow-on Enhanced Polar System (EPS) are strategic communications payloads hosted on other satellites. The IPS program was established in 1995 after the original plan to place Milstar satellites in inclined geosynchronous orbits was scrapped (IPS packages are basically low-data-rate Milstar payloads). EPS is an upgrade based on Advanced Extremely High Frequency technology and the eXtended Data Rate waveform and will provide connectivity to Global Information Grid gateways. EPS terminals are being procured by each service under separate contracts, and the mission control segment will be part of the AEHF mission control segment.

Iridium Satellite LLC provides the only commercial satellite communications service available in the Arctic region. The Iridium constellation provides 2.4-kilobyte-per-second channels for voice and data. U.S. government users comprise about 25 percent of the 100,000 or so subscribers under a long-term service contract signed in 2000. Military uses of Iridium continue to evolve. For example, the U.S. Air Force is reportedly deploying more than 280 meteorological data terminals that relay data to a processing center via Iridium. The U.S. government has its own Iridium gateway for secure access to the system.

Russian communication satellites in molniya orbits provide communications to their military forces (molniya orbits were first used by the USSR). Reportedly, there are 16 operational molniya satellites carrying the Russian Orbita Television network as well as commercial, government, and military communications traffic.

Future Options for Arctic Broadband

The Canadian Coast Guard ship Louis S. St. Laurent (left) and U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy (right) on the Arctic Ocean.

The Canadian Coast Guard ship Louis S. St. Laurent (left) and U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy (right) on the Arctic Ocean. The ships came together to learn the operations of one another during a scientific expedition to map the Arctic seafloor in 2008. Courtesy of USGS.

More-capable alternatives to the IPS and EPS hosted payloads have been studied by the Air Force. A 2004 study considered a dedicated molniya constellation crosslinked to the then-planned TSAT constellation. A 2008 study considered a constellation of small satellites. But free-flyer alternatives cost more than hosted payloads, which have remained the preferred options for military strategic communications in the Arctic up to now.

The range of options for future military broadband satellite communications in the Arctic region include hosted payloads (as with IPS and EPS), a dedicated molniya constellation, a combined all-latitudes constellation (such as the inclined 24-hour synchronous orbits originally considered for Milstar), a shared or joint program with allies, and leased commercial transponders (if a commercial broadband system becomes available in the future). Steps toward acquiring a dedicated military broadband system will need to start with a formal set of requirements followed by preliminary design studies and cost estimates for a range of development options. The final set of requirements and development budget would have to be negotiated and approved by all parties, including Congress.

Aerospace has studied orbital coverage options and preliminary satellite concepts for the region. A typical example is a commercial-class molniya system providing up to 2 gigabytes per second of bandwidth capacity, which is estimated to cost approximately $1 billion plus the costs of user terminals and ground operations. Higher levels of protection and survivability would cost more. Smaller satellites would cost less but provide significantly less bandwidth because of the less-efficient payload-mass fraction.

Given the uncertain pace of future Arctic melting, it is premature to recommend a dedicated program for military broadband service in the Arctic region. An all-latitude system (as originally planned for Milstar) may turn out to be the best long-term solution. An attractive option in the near term might be a joint program with U.S. allies or a commercial operator. Possibilities include:

Iridium Next

Iridium reportedly has partners and financing for the follow-on Iridium Next system (current Iridium satellites are already well beyond their design lifetimes). Iridium Next plans to offer Internet Protocol broadband channels with rates of up to 10 megabytes per second, which would provide a modest l

evel of broadband communications as early as 2016 if development goes as planned; however, the available bandwidth would not support the most capable unmanned aerial vehicles, and there may be other limitations on U.S. military use as well, given the foreign ownership of Iridium Next.

Polar Communications and Weather

An assessment of polar broadband communications options.

An assessment of polar broadband communications options.

The Polar Communications and Weather (PCW) system being developed by the Canadian Space Agency and Environment Canada consists of two multimission spacecraft in molniya orbits. One of the proposed payloads is a Ka-band communications package with a capacity similar to Iridium Next. The PCW system may offer a partnership opportunity that might provide some level of broadband service to U.S. military users. The U.S. currently has Radarsat-2 data-sharing agreements, for example, which could serve as a model. Canadian developers have reportedly had discussions with Finland, Norway, Russia, and the United States. One concern, however, is that the multimission PCW initiative is primarily a remote sensing program, and if cost or weight-growth issues arise, the secondary communications package might be downsized or dropped altogether. As with Iridium, foreign partners might also restrict the U.S. military’s use of the system’s communications package.

Russian Programs


Assessment criteria for polar broadband communications options.

Russia already provides various communications services in the Arctic region with its molniya systems. In 2010, Russia announced plans to develop a molniya satellite cluster called “Arktika” for weather and ice monitoring, broadcast communications, and data relay from Arctic buoys and automated weather stations. The Arktika-M spacecraft is designed to measure polar winds, cloud cover, precipitation, and ice parameters. The Arktika-R spacecraft will have synthetic-aperture radar, and the Arktika-MS spacecraft will provide telephone communications, relay television, and FM radio broadcasts to aircraft and ships. Russia has also announced plans for a molniya version of its Express series of GEO communications satellites based on the 8-12 kilowatt Express-4000 bus. The Express-RV is designed to provide Internet access and broadcast service.

Some European nations, including NATO members, have reportedly expressed interest in partnering with Russia in the development of these systems, which could potentially meet certain U.S. military and Coast Guard needs as well, such as communications for search and rescue and disaster response.

Commercial Broadband

Potential growth of bandwidth requirements

The potential growth of bandwidth requirements in the Arctic region over the next 15 years. Click on image to enlarge.

Providing broadband and other communication services for oil exploration, air travel, shipping, tourism, and other activities may offer future business opportunities; however, the hurdle for closing the business case for a commercial Arctic molniya system will be higher than for a typical GEO system. Two satellites are needed for continuous coverage, and the satellites require extra radiation hardening. Demand and spot lease revenue will be highly seasonal. Private investors will want higher expected returns to compensate for risks of uncertain demand growth, unresolved treaty issues, and non-GEO satellite development and operations.

The European Space Agency is exploring potential future demand for communication services in the Arctic to identify possible development opportunities for the European industry. Potential markets include search and rescue, vessel traffic systems, maritime highways, in situ sensor data collection and dissemination, and surveillance and military activities. The broadband market in the Arctic will eventually be substantial, but at this point, it is impossible to predict how fast demand will grow. Thus, it is unlikely a commercial business case can close in the near term without the Department of Defense as a partner in development or as a long-term anchor tenant.


Typical Bandwidth

Typical bandwidth capacities and the costs associated with a Molniya constellation. Click on image to enlarge.

National security space planners should start anticipating new military support requirements arising from increased military and Coast Guard operations in the Arctic. U.S. military satellite communications are limited at high latitudes, and there is no ability to surge capabilities by rephasing satellite orbits or leasing commercial transponders. The lack of broadband communication in the Arctic will constrain the use of unmanned aerial vehicles and other military operations when nations in the region are jockeying for influence and control. Developing a dedicated military broadband molniya system cannot be justified in the near term, so the Department of Defense should work with potential international and commercial partners to explore opportunities for jointly developing a broadband system. Assured access to foreign and commercial synthetic-aperture radar imagery for ice surveillance should also be a priority.

The authors acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of our colleagues at The Aerospace Corporation, including Thomas Lang for his analyses of satellite constellation geographic coverage options, Thanh Hoang for his contributions on communication satellite capabilities and costs, and Andrew Izaguirre for his research on currently operational polar satellites.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the proceedings of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space 2009 Conference and Exposition.

Further Reading

“The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications of Global Climate Change,” Center for Strategies and International Studies Report (Nov. 2007); 071105_ageofconsequences.pdf (as of March 29, 2011).

J. Amos, “Arctic Summers Ice-Free ‘by 2013’,” BBC News (Dec. 12, 2007).

“The Arctic Ocean and Climate Change: A Scenario for the U.S. Navy,” Arctic Research Commission; (as of March 29, 2011).

“Arctic Security,” Canadian Naval Review, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Winter 2006).

S. Borgerson, “Arctic Meltdown: The Economic and Security Implications of Global Warming,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2008).

E. Chalecki, “He Who Would Rule: Climate Change in the Arctic and its Implications for U.S. National Security,” International Studies Association 48th Annual Convention (Chicago, Feb. 28, 2007).

“CRS Report for Congress: Coast Guard Polar Icebreaker Modernization: Background, Issues, and Options for Congress” (Feb. 26, 2008); (as of March 29, 2011).

F. Fetterer and C. Fowler, “National Ice Center Arctic Sea Ice Charts and Climatologies in Gridded Format” (National Snow and Ice Data Center, Boulder, CO); (as of March 29, 2011).

M. Goldberg, “About That Russian Arctic ‘Claim’,” UN Dispatch: Posts on the UN, (Aug. 2007).

R. Huebert, “Canada’s Arctic: A Maritime Security Perspective” (Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, Dalhousie University); (as of March 29, 2011).

“Impact of An Ice-Diminishing Arctic on Naval and Maritime Operations,” Symposium by the National Ice Center and United States Arctic Research Commission (July 2007); (as of March 29, 2011).

National Security and the Threat of Climate Change Military Advisory Board Report (The CNA Corporation, Alexandria, VA, 2007).

“National Security Presidential Directive 66/Homeland Security Presidential Directive 25”; (as of March 29, 2011).

“Project Polar Epsilon Will Enhance Canada’s Surveillance and Security Capability,” National Defence and the Canadian Forces (June 2, 2005); (as of March 29, 2011).

N. Purvis and J. Busby, “The Security Implications of Climate Change for the UN System,” United Nations High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change (Washington, DC, 2004).

D. Shipley, “Arctic Sea Ice Extent Trending Below Record 2007 Melt,” The Daily Green (June 12, 2009).

S. Thorne, “Feds Look to Satellite to Assert Arctic Sovereignty,” Canadian Press (Aug. 28, 2005).

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