New Satellite Data Layer Connects Army, Navy, NATO—with Link 16

The Space Development Agency is fine-tuning and expanding its data transport satellites’ Link 16 connectivity, preparing for them to become the “backbone” of the Pentagon’s ambitious joint all-domain command and control system—and perhaps beyond that to NATO. 

SDA Director Derek M. Tournear said April 10 at the Space Symposium that the agency has signed agreements with the Army, Navy, and other services to use the satellites as they develop their networks to connect sensors and shooters. And it’s not just U.S. forces: Tournear said Norway will host a ground station and demonstrate Link 16 connectivity between satellites and NATO’s terrestrial networks. 

At the heart of it all is Link 16, the waveform used by U.S. and allied forces to transmit data. SDA conducted the first ever Link 16 demonstration from space last November, leading Tournear to say at the time that he could not “underscore enough the significance of this technical achievement.” 

Five months later, Tournear said in Colorado Springs, Colo., that the first demonstration, while critical, was “very rudimentary.” 

“We were able to connect about 50 percent of the time when we were overhead, and we were able to stay connected for about 30 seconds,” he said. “So that’s good but not really something to write home to mom about. But now we’re able to get 100 percent of our passes connectivity, basically with no failure. And we have roughly 10 minutes of connectivity, which is essentially limb to limb as the satellite goes over, so it’s working exceptionally well.” 

Proving the reliability of Link 16 from SDA’s low-Earth orbit satellites is critical for JADC2, which the Pentagon envisions connecting sensors and shooters around the world, regardless of where the data originates or what domain the shooter is in.  

Space Development Agency director Derek M. Tournear. Image courtesy of the Space Foundation

Link 16 is not the only waveform that will be needed—Tournear noted SDA’s satellites can also use Ka band and other signals—and Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen H. Hicks declared in February that JADC2 has reached a minimal viable capability even without SDA’s satellites. 

But the ubiquity of Link 16 and the connectivity offered by the hundreds of satellites SDA intends to launch into low-Earth orbit means they will be critical, and Tournear said the organization has taken steps to formalize that. 

“We have agreements signed with the Army, we have agreements signed with the Navy to make sure that they will utilize us for this JADC2 backbone. So in addition to the Link 16 up and down, we also have Ka that can go down directly to the Army’s Titan systems, or the Navy’s maritime targeting cell—they have one ashore and afloat, which is part of their Overmatch system,” Tournear said. “And so we have [memorandums of agreement] signed so we’re all on board to tie all of those together with Link 16, with Ka, and then we also have agreement signed to use our optical terminals to go down to airborne platforms.” 

At the moment, SDA cannot conduct Link 16 demonstrations over U.S. airspace, part of an ongoing dispute between the Pentagon and Federal Aviation Administration. Instead, the agency has operated from the territory of a Five Eyes partner nation—Australia, Canada, New Zealand, or the United Kingdom. 

“We’ve been in in their country, starting in November when we first did the test, essentially up to Christmas break and then we took off about a month and a half,” Tournear said. “And then we sent the team back out.” 

Beyond that, he said, SDA is starting to work with NATO partners too, starting with Norway. 

“NATO is using Link 16. Link 16 is what we will use in any fight over the next 10 years,” Tournear noted. “And so [Norway has] partnered with us to test later this summer Link 16 from the SDA constellation directly into their country’s forces, using their existing Link 16 connectivity, using the NATO cryptography.” 

Norway has also agreed to host a “ground entry point” through which SDA will be able to connect with their satellites for command and control, Tournear noted.