Beginning next year, Spain and Luxembourg will join four other NATO nations that provide satellite communications services to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as part of a satellite services project that began in 2020. 

Earlier this month, leaders of the oversight agencies in the six countries met just outside of Washington, D.C., to review the satellite services already being provided by the project, called NATO SATCOM Services 6th Generation, or NSS6G. During their meeting, they also assessed the current performance of those services and any ongoing challenges. 

During these sessions, representatives of NATO’s Communications and Information Agency and the six nations agreed on the final text of the amendment to the memorandum of understanding, which provides the framework via which satellite communications services are provided to NATO. 

The proposed amendment is crafted to enable Luxembourg and Spain to join the U.S., France, Italy and the U.K. as the providers of military satellite communications to NATO. 

Beginning in 2005, NATO ceased acquiring and operating its own satellites, some of which had been based on designs from the early 1970s. Instead, NATO opted to turn to member states France, Italy and the U.K. to provide NATO forces with the satellite communications they needed while conducting operations. In 2020, the U.S. joined the existing team. 

Under the arrangement, the U.S. provides support with its “extremely high frequency,” or EHF, transport service for NATO nuclear command and control and “super-high frequency,” or SHF, capacity from its national Wideband Global Satellite Communications System. 

France, the U.K. and Italy provide SHF and UHF capacity through their Syracuse, Skynet, and Sicral constellations. Spain and Luxembourg will bring additional SHF and UHF capacity to the consortium from their Spainsat Next Generation and GovSat satellite constellations, respectively. In total, about a dozen military satellites will provide capability to NATO. 

“These are at varying levels of protection,” said Brian Hughes, the current NSS6G Joint Services management office leader in the international affairs office of the U.S. Space Systems Command. “It’s all military satellite communications, which means that it has resistance to nuclear effects and has resistance to jamming capabilities that commercial services generally don’t have.” 

Hughes said satellite communications services are provided to NATO though a combination of what is called “allocate and commit” and managed services. 

“[Allocate and commit is] where this capacity is actually given to NATO and [NATO] can use it as it needs it,” Hughes said. “And then, we have a managed access service where [NATO] makes a request at specific times that they need it, and we [the team of national providers] actually manage the service provided.” 

It’s not NATO nations who will directly use the capability provided by NSSG6, but rather NATO headquarters itself when it runs NATO-sanctioned operations. 

“NATO has, as an enterprise, its own requirements because it provides the headquarters functions, whether they’re static or deployed,” Hughes said. “That SATCOM [satellite communications] is critical because NATO is providing the command-and-control function through SATCOM, which is absolutely necessary.” 

While the NSS6G consortium provides the space-based capability, NATO itself provides the tools its forces need on the ground, said Nusret Yilmaz, the SATCOM business unit owner within the NATO Communications and Information Agency.

“NATO owns the ground equipment,” Yilmaz said. “All the end-user equipment, including the tactical radios, including the terminals for, let’s say, deployed communications and including the various sizes of transportable and deployable communication systems. These are owned by NATO. NATO is operating and maintaining [the ground systems]. These are organic capabilities of NATO. However, for the space segment, NATO doesn’t have any organic capability.” 

NATO’s original move away from its organic space assets was both a cost-saving measure and an effort to allow NATO to be able to take advantage of the more modern space-based systems that NATO allies would field for their own use. 

The addition of Spain and Luxembourg to NSSG6 means increased resilience in satellite communications capability. 

“Since it is not only one nation, [but] multiple nations, there is also kind of resilience in the space segment,” Yilmaz said. “There is recently a very high increase in demand for satellite communications. NATO has compensated for this increase in demand through various ground segment and user segment projects. Now through this MOU and amendment, NATO kind of makes sure this additional capacity is taken care of from the space segment perspective, as well.” 

Mike Dean, who serves as the Defense Department’s Chief Information Office SATCOM chief, served as the host for this month’s conference. He said, so far, NSS6G has been a great example of collaboration and partnership among the four nations to provide satellite bandwidth and service to NATO, and the two additional partners will only enhance that cooperation. 

“The addition of Luxembourg and Spain will build upon existing working relationships and the ongoing interactions we have with our International partners,” he said. 

Dean also commented on the benefits of U.S. participation to the DOD. 

“We are reimbursed for the services we provide to NATO,” he explained. “We are then able to work with the U.S. Space Command and the services and use that money to help fund projects that will enhance the satellite communications services for our warfighters. It’s an excellent example of how a small investment can make a significant improvement in capability.” 

NSS6G is beginning 10 years of its fully operational period, which continues through the end of 2034.

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