Navy Ships Improve Attack With New Multi-Beam Satellite Antenna

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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington, D.C.) Targeting enemy ships, bouncing war data off of drones, detecting incoming ballistic missiles, seeing approaching small boat attacks from over the horizon, intercepting anti-ship missiles and .. perhaps most of all … networking surface, air and undersea assets in real time -- are all crucial elements of the U.S. Navy’s emerging Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) tactical attack strategy.

Offensive attack maneuver, fortified by advanced sensors and dispersed across vast swaths of ocean, is one of the tenets informing the Navy’s DMO thinking. Surface ships will by design increasingly operate in a dis-aggregated fashion, armed with long range weapons and sensors; it is all part of a multi-year Navy pivot toward broadly increasing lethality and attack technology throughout the surface fleet, by arming ships for high-end massive warfare on the open sea with a new generation of advanced weapons.

It is within this conceptual framework that the Navy is taking fast steps to better network its fleet with improved satellite connectivity. GPS guidance, radio frequencies and other electronic systems making up the warfare transport layer, are vital when it comes to connecting surface platforms with satellites, and to one another. The idea is for each platform to not only operate as an independent entity capable of combat operations but also function as a “node” within a broader warfare network. This can include long-range, high-frequency radio communications, an ability to bounce electromagnetic signals off of aerial nodes such as drones and the enabling of multi-satellite connectivity simultaneously to increase combat sensor awareness - possibly improving targeting.

The sea service plans to benefit from a recently awarded Defense Innovation Unit evaluation and development contract with Isotropic Systems for new patented beam-forming antenna technologies and circuits. The goal, according to Isotropic CEO John Finney, is to “fuse multi-band, multi-orbit commercial and military capacity to deliver intelligence data at the tactical edge over a single platform.”

The value added with this new technology is 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 upon Isotropic's new signal-forming optical lens technology, Isotropic Vice President of Development Brian Billman, told Warrior in an interview.

Technically, the antenna transmission draws upon a first-of-its-kind beam-forming optical lens engineered to send precise beams to several differently placed 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, Billman explained that the new multi-beam antenna is quite different in that it can sustain its power and signal fidelity across multiple bands at the same time. Phased array antennas, Billman said, not only rely upon a wider aperture which consumes more of the circuitry and electrical power, but decrease in power and effectiveness when broken into two beams simultaneously. Whereas the optical lenses designed to empower the single antenna functionality do not need to all operate at the same time, yet several different beam transmissions can connect with several satellites at once; The patented beam-forming system can connect satellites of different sizes, operating at various altitudes within different orbits. Phased arrays also, by contrast, require a larger form factor which consumes more real estate, and electrical power, on a surface ship. Also, when it comes to warfare operational resiliency, several more narrowly configured, yet dispersed, electronic signals emit a lower and less detectable signature than larger, phased array emissions.

The antenna design is engineered to enable “seamless make-before-break switching between satellites in multiple orbits, and continuous connectivity during turbulent pitch-and-roll conditions facing vessels traversing rough seas,” a company statement explained.

An interesting essay in “Satellite Today” (CLICK HERE) quotes Finney explaining some of the technical basis for the system. The radio waves, the article explains, are shaped by passing through an “isotropic device,” which increases linear precision in multiple directions simultaneously without losing any signal capacity. Finney applied “transformational optics - the manipulation of light to make objects appear invisible - to satellite antennas. Light and radio propagate through space in the same way, in a straight line, so radio waves can be bent just like light waves,” the essay states...(Satellite Today essay - (CLICK HERE)

DUI will, according to the deal, begin prototyping the antenna technology, engineered to support “multiple links over multiple bands of satellite capacity,” including S, C, Ka, Ku, X and Q-band connections. The evaluation will also seek to recreate challenging wartime contingencies such as an ability to operate in rough seas, sustain high winds and function in areas where there may be electromagnetic interference.

Isotropric Systems image

Should this new multi-beam forming technology come to fruition in an operational sense, it will bring with it a number of interesting tactical implications; increased bandwidth and multi-satellite connectivity could also enhance functionality of some weapons systems. For instance, the Navy’s ship-launched Maritime Tomahawk can use high-throughput radio signals to help direct a missile toward a moving target at sea. This of course brings new attack options for Navy ships which have historically only used Tomahawks against fixed-targets. Improved bandwidth and precise, multi-beam forming connectivity between multiple satellites at once could improve targeting and weapons guidance by, perhaps in some scenarios, handing off a targeting track quickly from one satellite to another as an incoming threat travels from one region to another; sharing sensor data from one satellite sensing envelope to another in real-time can help share targeting information, track long-range attacks and connect otherwise disparate units to one another. Networking multiple satellites and ship-or-ground-based terminals could bring new advantages for dismounted soldiers as well, many of whom rely upon radio networks across and between swaths of rugged terrain.

The U.S. military, which is now aggressively preparing for space war, is quickly building and flying new satellites. Some of these include emerging networks of Very Low Earth Orbit (vLEO) satellites, smaller, lower-flying nodes intended to connect to the ground and one another while moving quickly and operating closer to the boundaries of the earth’s atmosphere. This phenomenon, coupled with concurrent Pentagon efforts to build more larger satellites, is intended to not only improve multi-node networking but also facilitate several key elements of the Air Force’s space war strategy -- redundancy, dis aggregation and resiliency. The more satellites there are in space...and the more dispersed or dis-aggregated they are .. the harder it is for an enemy to knock out U.S. operational connectivity. Combat crucial satellite transmissions, including radio, data, video and other networking mediums and guidance systems, can sustain functionality in the event that one is jammed or destroyed by an Anti-Satellite (ASAT) weapon. Therefore, faster, multi-satellite, beam-forming antenna technology ensuring connectivity across multiple nodes in space, can preserve operational necessities such as air-ground connectivity, ship-to-ship radio transmissions and cross-domain networking. While this technology could at the moment be described as nascent or emerging … yet believed to be resilient and highly mature… it could eventually evolve toward having additional space war, weapons guidance, jamming and even missile defense applications.

“Over the course of the next 10 years, the amount of available options in space for connectivity will be vast, with anywhere between thousands of satellites, to tens of thousands of satellites, operating in different frequencies and different orbits,” Finney said in the Satellite Today essay. “You then have two choices. You either work with the legacy, old generation technology that was never designed for that future. … Or you innovate, to create something that’s purposely designed for the new world of satellites.”

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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.

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