YUMA PROVING GROUND, Ariz. — To put it bluntly, the U.S. Army is not exactly known for its space savviness.
However, as the Army gears up for combat with near-peer competitors, it’s doing its best to leverage new space capabilities to improve its targeting and networks, greatly expanding the range it can fire at enemies effectively. And at Project Convergence 20, the service got its first high profile opportunity to show off what it can do with emergent tactical space capabilities.
Project Convergence is the first iteration of the Army’s new “campaign of learning,” an effort to bring together the most cutting edge technologies, connect them together with an advanced battlefield network, and extend their ability to hit beyond-line-of-sight targets with confidence. During six weeks in the blazing Arizona heat at Yuma Proving Ground, the Army ran through dozens of scenarios, linking weapons systems and sensors together, applying artificial intelligence to detect and target threats, and using a developmental network to expand the battlefield.
Perhaps most importantly, Army’s Futures Command was able to show how new tactical space capabilities can transform the battlefield.
Three key technologies are driving this change. First are the satellites that can take detailed photos of the battlefield. Second are the developmental ground station and artificial intelligence system that receives those images, processes them, and turns them into targeting data. And third are the tactical communications satellites that take that data and transfer it across the country to the weapon systems that will fire on the target.
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At Project Convergence, leaders focused on “that ability to request data, bring that data directly back down into theater, very rapidly process that data, you know, finding threats in those images or within that data set,” Willie Nelson, director of Army Futures Command’s Assured Positioning, Navigation and Timing Cross-Functional Team, told C4ISRNET following the exercise.
This transformation is only possible due to the growing prevalence of satellites operating in low Earth orbit.
“For decades now, the military — not just the Army by itself, but the military generally — has been dependent on geosynchronous Earth orbit satellites, or GEO satellites,” a member of the Network Cross Functional Team told Army Sec. Ryan McCarthy in Yuma. “Today, we have commercial satellites in constellations that are at the mid Earth orbit level and the low Earth orbit level, or MEO and LEO. This is a difference between 22,000 miles for the GEO satellites, 5,000 miles altitude for the MEO satellites, and only 320 miles for the LEO satellites.”
Naturally, it’s far cheaper to send a satellite to LEO than to GEO — which has led to an explosion of new small satellites being launched into orbit. Instead of launching five or six massive, expensive satellites into GEO, companies can create huge constellations of small, cheap satellites in LEO to much the same effect. Some of those constellations — think SpaceX’s Starlink and OneWeb – already have hundreds of satellites