Our Link to Communication

Low Earth orbit satellite to enhance situational awareness

By: 1st Lt. Nick Nowland, USAF, Daedalian Member #4921

Drones, missile strikes and late-night raids on enemy high-value targets — these are the bits of news that occasionally percolate out of the United States’ ongoing conflicts. However, behind all the advanced technology and dramatic action, there is a system that provides American forces with their real secret weapon: situational awareness of the battlefield. Precise weapons, high flying aircraft and meticulously trained special operators are only useful if you can determine friend from foe in the battle-space, and more importantly, know where they are located. Situational awareness, or SA, is the fuel that keeps the U.S. military’s combat operations running.

     Military leaders throughout history have understood the importance of SA, and it has been a consistent feature of great generals from Caesar to Zhukov. A commander who better understands their troop’s location in relation to the enemy can seize the offensive initiative and attack with confidence. The need for greater combat SA became especially clear to the American military in World War Two. Studies noted that those on the battlefield with the most SA usually lacked efficient means to accurately communicate that information to those units in need of that awareness. This was particularly clear during the massive Japanese kamikaze attacks on the U.S. Navy during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. The Navy could not effectively vector intercepting fighters onto kamikazes early enough to prevent the Japanese from killing almost 5,000 sailors and sinking dozens of ships. The U.S. military did not forget those painful lessons, and by the 1960s, the Navy and Air Force were both developing technologies to enable units on the battlefield to share information about their location and the position of enemy units.

     One of these technologies developed into a system the U.S. military still uses today. The system has had a variety of names, but its current label is Link 16. It is a family of technologies that use radios as tactical data links that enable air, ground and sea assets to communicate and track each other’s locations on screens. Link 16 users can also share battlefield points of interest and identify enemies. Thus, a soldier sitting in a Humvee under camouflage netting can have the same level of SA as a command-and-control aircraft circling the battlefield at 20,000 feet.

     Link 16 is critical in the United States’ current conflicts for a variety of reasons, with one of its most useful aspects lying in its ability to help large numbers of aircraft in small operating areas safely deconflict. However, as the U.S. prepares for great power competitions, Link 16 will become even more critical. Quickly differentiating friend from foe is vital when that foe is a highly capable SU-35 darting towards friendly aircraft or when an unidentified vehicle is a Russian multiple-launch-rocket-system about to unleash a barrage on American infantry. Seconds matter in these life-and-death situations, and Link 16 helps
arm combatants with the information they need to make split-second decisions.

     Fortunately, Link 16 is becoming even more capable as the Air Force is working with private industry to build a low Earth orbit satellite capable of extending the range of Link 16 networks and connecting them to larger constellations of satellites. This spacecraft represents a crucial step in the effort to transform Link 16 from a line-of-sight to a beyond-line-of-sight system that will greatly improve its SA — providing additional capabilities. Building Link 16 transmitters into new satellites is also relatively inexpensive, thus adding Link 16 capabilities to planned satellites is financially feasible and would enable a fleet of them to provide persistent coverage for military assets around the globe. A greater number of satellites also means the system is more durable and can survive an enemy destroying a number of satellites, a real possibility in future conflicts. 

     Furthermore, the battlegrounds of the future will certainly involve mass amounts of communications jamming, and the network infrastructure of Link 16 makes it resistant to this. For a future armored company commander sitting on a battlefield seething with electronic warfare that renders most of their radios useless, Link 16 may be the only connection to friendly forces this lonely commander may possess. It could be their sole means of understanding the battlefield beyond the scopes of their tank sights and Mark I eyeballs. 

     Thus, if amateurs talk tactics and professionals talk logistics, then forward-looking thinkers should talk Link 16.