NATO relies on space for a wide range of activities, from intelligence-gathering and navigation, to tracking forces around the globe and detecting missile launches. Space is essential for the Alliance's deterrence and defence. After 15 years of experience provisioning satellite communications (SATCOM) services, NATO has a new satellite services project to give the Alliance improved SATCOM capabilities, called NATO SATCOM Services 6th Generation (NSS6G).
- In 2019, NATO authorised EUR 1 billion for SATCOM services for the next 15 years.
- The NATO Communications and Information (NCI) Agency concluded a memorandum of understanding with four NATO Allies – France, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States – for the provision of critical SATCOM services to NATO for a 15-year period from January 2020 until the end of 2034.
- The agreement enables the four Allies to provide space capacity from their military SATCOM programmes to NATO. Nations began providing capacity on 1 January 2020.
- The NCI Agency is responsible for operating the SATCOM capability to deliver services to NATO.
- This landmark agreement provides NATO with a greater, more resilient and more flexible space capability to conduct its operations and exercises.
- The NSS6G project is the successor to the NATO SATCOM Post-2000 project, which supplied SATCOM services to NATO from 2005 to 2019. The Post-2000 project was considered the 5th generation of SATCOM capability for NATO.
- Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) – NATO's airborne ground surveillance capability relying on NATO satellite communications – reached initial operational capability in February 2021. In addition to the four participating nations (France, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States), satellite communications for AGS are also delivered via commercial contracts with industry from Luxembourg and Norway.
More background information
The NATO capability provided through NSS6G consists of both space and ground segment components.
Space segment components
NSS6G combines the three following projects:
- the super high frequency (SHF) band, which covers the high-capacity SATCOM links for deployed and static users;
- the ultra-high frequency (UHF) band, which covers the low-data rate tactical user requirements; and
- the extremely high frequency (EHF) band, which provides highly survivable SATCOM services for special user requirements.
These three projects provide NATO with access to the military segments of four national satellite communications systems: SYRACUSE from France, SICRAL from Italy, Skynet from the United Kingdom and WGS from the United States.
One of the NATO systems using satellite communications from NSS6G is the Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) system. In addition to using the UHF band from NSS6G, NATO AGS uses two other types of satellite communications via commercial contracts with industry: Ku band provided by LuxGovSat and Inmarsat via Airbus Norway. NATO’s AGS system provides a unique state-of-the-art airborne ground surveillance capability for all NATO members, with a platform adapted to meet NATO’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance requirements.
Ground segment components
The NCI Agency, with more than 100 subject matter experts and military operators, manages several satellite ground stations (SGS). In order to deliver new, improved satellite anchoring capabilities to NATO, four of the stations are being upgraded. This upgrade will almost double the previous satellite communications ground coverage and will enable NATO to do more with fewer stations. The satellite ground stations are:
- two large satellite ground stations:
- SGS-S01 Kester, Belgium (the provisional acceptance of a completely rebuilt site was achieved on 29 November 2019)
- SGS-S02 Lughezzano, Italy (the station at Lughezzano is being extensively upgraded, with three new antennas)
- two smaller satellite ground stations, both of which will be refurbished and upgraded:
- SGS-S03 Atalanti, Greece
- SGS-S04 Oglananasi, Turkey
From 2005 until 2019, the NATO SATCOM Post-2000 project supplied SATCOM services to NATO. In this project, three nations (France, Italy and the United Kingdom) delivered capacity to NATO.
The 2020 agreement on NSS6G results in a 15 per cent increase in the SHF band and a 25 per cent increase in the UHF band. The use of the EHF band is a new capability for NATO.
The NCI Agency also coordinated the agreement for AGS’s satellite communications in 2015.
The Joint Service Management Office at the NCI Agency’s offices in Mons, Belgium serves as the administrative and management interface between the four nations and the Agency’s SATCOM Programme Manager.
In addition, a Joint Service Delivery Office – composed of one contractor from each of the four nations – is the interface between the national satellite communications centres and the Agency’s service delivery managers.
Allied Command Operations (ACO), in conjunction with the NCI Agency, plans and prepares NATO’s operational requirements, which are then discussed with the two offices to ensure that suitable satellite capacity is made available to meet NATO’s changing requirements. Day-to-day satellite access requests are then handled by the NCI Agency, which allocates user traffic to the satellite capacity.
The Alliance had only been in existence for 17 years when it began investigating how to use space to increase its capabilities. Later, in 1970, with only three space-capable nations on Earth at that time, NATO started a programme that would last until 2005, owning and operating communications satellites to support the Alliance. Those satellites were able to deliver to NATO tactical (in UHF band) and strategic (in SHF band) capacity.
The organisation now known as the NCI Agency provided this essential SATCOM capacity to NATO. During this period, the number of nations owning satellites rapidly expanded from 3 to 50, with the cost of placing a satellite into orbit decreasing considerably as technological capabilities advanced.
As a result of the changing environment, NATO adopted a different approach to the provision of satellite communications in 2005, coordinating with nations and procuring space services from industry and through what is now the NCI Agency.
After 15 years of experience provisioning satellite communications services, NATO signed a new memorandum of understanding known as NSS6G and added dedicated satellite communications for NATO’s airborne ground surveillance capability, i.e. the AGS remotely piloted aircraft.