The United States is taking an important step forward towards enhancing its satellite communications coverage over the arctic.
The Arctic is not well served by military Satellite Communications (SATCOM) coverage. This is problematic. Global warming is reducing the polar ice gap. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says that polar ice has reduced at a rate of 13 percent each decade. Chillingly (no pun intended) it says the Arctic could be ice-free by 2040. Melting ice puts more liquid water into oceans and this increases the risk of flooding for those living in coastal areas. An article published this June on the World Bank’s blog warns the risk of flooding already affects almost two billion people globally. An article published by Brown University warns that “the future of the Arctic Ocean looks grim”. As the ice caps recede, so new parts of the Arctic open to shipping. Commercial traffic could potentially use shorter routes from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans skirting Russia’s Arctic coastline.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is the international legal framework for marine and maritime activities with 167 signatories. The Convention’s Article 234 deals with ice-covered stretches of water stipulating that “(c)oastal States have the right to adopt and enforce non-discriminatory laws and regulations for the prevention, reduction and control of marine pollution from vessels in ice-covered areas within the limits of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)”. This can be done when “particularly severe climatic conditions and the presence of ice covering such areas for most of the year create obstructions or exceptional hazards to navigation”.
Brown University’s article says that Russian law requires all vessels passing through the Northern Sea Route along the country’s northern coast to have a Russian pilot. Tolls are imposed on vessels and advanced notice must be given of plans to navigate this route. The problem for Russia is that Article 234 will no longer be relevant if there is no longer any ice. Might the Russian government flex its maritime muscles in other ways in an ice-free Arctic increasingly used by commercial shipping? Would this necessitate a firm response from US or allied nations? Might we see warships from these countries escorting commercial vessels through newly ice-free international waters close to Russia’s EEZ?
These emerging maritime security questions place a premium on robust over-the-horizon communications. Ships will need to talk to each other over vast distances, and communicate with their commanders and governments back home, distances which stretch to many thousands of miles.
Current Arctic SATCOM coverage is scant. An article published this February by International Defence, Security and Technology said no geostationary SATCOM coverage exists above 81 degrees north. Fortunately emerging constellations like Starlink, which offers global broadband internet coverage, will encompass Arctic regions. However, the situation at present for the US military is concerning as it suffers a dearth of coverage. The US Department of Defence’s (DOD) Boeing Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) constellation provides coverage up to circa 70 degrees north, the edge of the Arctic polar region.
This dearth of dedicated military SATCOM coverage in the Arctic is beginning to abate via the US DOD’s Northrop Grumman Enhanced Polar System (EPS). The EPS comprises two payloads equipping the same number of satellites carrying an Extremely High Frequency (EHF) SATCOM package. They complement the DOD’s Lockheed Martin/Northrop Grumman Advanced EHF constellation. These offer uplinks on 44 gigahertz/GHz and downlinks on 20GHz frequencies.
Northrop Grumman is building the satellites on behalf of Space Norway. The latter is a Norwegian government-owned strategic space infrastructure company. Known as ASBM-1/2 the two spacecraft will also include a Ka-band (26.5-40GHz uplink/18-20GHz downlink) Inmarsat SATCOM package. This will extend the company’s Global Xpress broadband coverage into the Arctic. The Norwegian Ministry of Defence will also benefit from military X-band (7.9-8.4GHz uplink/7.25-7.75GHz downlink) coverage provided by the satellites. Launch is due in March 2023.
The EPS payloads will primarily be used to carry strategic communications between the Continental United States (CONUS) and US Navy Nuclear-Powered Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBNs). The Arctic is the likely firing location for these boat’s Lockheed Martin UGM-113A Trident-II/D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles against targets in Russia. For understandable reasons, ensuring robust communications between the SSBNs in the far north and CONUS is paramount.
There is still much work to be done improving dedicated US and allied SATCOM coverage over the Arctic as the strategic seascape changes. The EPS initiative is nonetheless an important step in this direction.
by Dr. Thomas Withington