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Link 16 satellite will launch in 2021

AFRLs XVI project will provide warfighters a Link-16 tactical communications capability from low earth orbit. Link 16 is the NATO standard communications link used in U.S. and allied fighter jets and other military aircraft, as well as by ships at sea and by troops on the ground. (Courtesy of Air Force Research Laboratory)

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to fix two misspellings.

The U.S. military could soon hitch rides on commercially operated low-Earth orbit satellites to significantly improve land, sea and air-based encrypted communications.

The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base awarded a $10 million contract last year to California-based communications firm ViaSat to place a Link 16 terminal on an LOE satellite as a test pilot to show if the military network can be operated from space.

Link 16 is an encrypted radio frequency used by the U.S. military and NATO allies to exchange data and images, with some 30,000 terminals deployed worldwide. But it’s a “line-of-sight” system that frequently loses connectivity, especially in mountainous terrain, said Col. Eric Felt, head of the Space Vehicles Directorate.

“It can’t go through mountains, so you have to relay the signal to an airplane and then from the aircraft down to the (receiver) destination,” Felt told the Journal. “If the network is on a satellite, the radio wave can go directly from one satellite user to another. With enough terminals on satellites, Link 16 could be available all over.”

Until recently, the DOD could only place Link 16 terminals on geostationary satellites some 22,000 miles out in space, which is much too far to operate, Felt said. But today’s LOE satellites, which operate at below 1,200 miles, could make a space-based Link 16 network feasible.

The first pilot Link 16-equipped satellite will launch in early 2021. If successful, the military could partner with commercial companies that plan to operate LOE constellations with hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of satellites.

“Our technology experts don’t see any reason now why this won’t work,” Felt said.

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