Space: Russia Goes On The Offensive In Orbital Space


November 4, 2015: An American firm, Intelsat, is the largest operator of communications satellites (75 at the moment) in the world and fears some of its satellites are being targeted by the Russians for a possible attack on Western communications satellites. All this came about in early 2015 when it was noted that a Russian military satellite was being moved into orbits very close (as in ten kilometers) of two Intelsat satellites. These incidents, which took place over a period of five months were reported to the U.S. Department of Defense which revealed that it had noted two other Russian military satellites carrying out similar maneuvers, but not as close to American satellites. All of these maneuvers were representative of what an attack satellite would do when preparing to damage or destroy other satellites. When the Department of Defense asked the Russians what was going on they received no answer. This is ironic because a lot of Intelsat satellites were placed in orbit by Russian rockets.

Intelsat has a lot of big customers, including the Department of Defense and many shipping companies. Most of what Intelsat sells these days is Internet access for ships at sea and military units in remote locations. While most of that Internet traffic is used for morale purposes, a lot of it is mission critical. That is, if that satellite Internet access is cut the ships and military units will be a lot less effective. 

This shift to heavy satellite communications use came about as navies and commercial ship owners both discovered that Internet access at sea is not only good for morale but also for safe and efficient operation of their ships. That’s because the Internet has become a key tool for rapidly transferring useful data like engine and other equipment performance as well as quickly delivering detailed weather maps and other navigation alerts. By the late 1990s crew members were increasingly eager to have Internet at sea because it meant email and telephone contact with family and friends back home. But now crew demand even more Internet based services which require still more Internet access.

While communications costs are currently only .3 percent of operating expenses on commercial ships, it has been found that adding more Internet access pays for itself in more efficient (and less costly) ship operation. This includes lower crew costs because you keep people you want longer and lower recruitment costs.  But having a constant Internet link between many ship systems and the manufacturers ashore helps make these systems more reliable and that results in fewer breakdowns and costly delays (especially for commercial ships) while repairs are made.

Navies have seen this Internet demand coming as well. Back in 2010 the U.S. Navy purchased over half a billion dollars’ worth of satellite communications capacity (or "bandwidth") from Intelsat, the owner of the words' largest fleet of communications satellites (at the time 51 of them, and still evolving). That gave the navy five years of access to over $100 million a year in bandwidth per year. The ships of the fleet were then equipped with more powerful satellite communications equipment, to take advantage of the increased bandwidth. The additional 1.3 meter (4.3 feet) and 2.7 meter (8.9 foot) satellite dishes provided real-time video (from UAVs, aircraft or satellites) capability for major ships, as well as the ability to quickly transfer large data files with anyone on the planet.

The increased bandwidth also meant high-speed Internet ("fat pipes") service (subject to mission demands) for the crew. This was a big change for sailors. Between 2005 and 2010 the U.S. Navy equipped all of its ships with Internet access for the crews. As a result of that, the average carrier battle group, and its 8,000 or so sailors, were able to send and receive over a thousand emails an hour. Sailors could also surf the net, and conduct business online (like buying stuff.) But the seagoing Internet connection was via a low bandwidth satellite link. Most of the bandwidth was devoted to official duties, with only a small portion permanently allocated for use by the crew for personal use. Thus, while email gets in and out pretty quickly, going shopping was a tedious experience, because the large product images used by many shopping sites took forever to load. While you can often turn off the loading of image files, that often makes it difficult to figure out what you are buying.

 Sites that specialized in sales to sailors at sea recognized the problem, and created "low bandwidth" versions of their sites. For example, the U.S. Navy Exchange Service Command sells uniforms for sailors. They created a low bandwidth site, which used low res images, or no image files at all, if possible, to make the site quick to access by sailors at sea. This also increases sales, which makes it all worthwhile for whoever's in charge of the budget.

The low bandwidth sites were only needed as a temporary solution. As bandwidth became cheaper new hardware and software enabled remote locations (like ships at sea and undeveloped land areas) to get affordable high speed satellite access. Navies found it worth the morale boost to give their sailors more, sometimes even regular his-speed Internet access that their civilian counterparts enjoy. In addition more sailors at sea can, as their army and air force counterparts have been doing for years, use video conferencing to connect with the folks back home. This is a big deal, and a major morale boost, especially for sailors separated from young children.

Ground units in remote areas (like Afghanistan and many parts of Africa and the Middle East) have the same Internet needs as ships at sea and would be equally vulnerable if that access were cut. Like the navy the army and air force have developed the ability to use high speed Internet access via satellites. Thus is should be no surprise that the Department of Defense was upset when the Russian satellites began acting aggressively.






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