A Thales Ground Master 200 radar at the Paris Air Show in Le Bourget, Paris, France, on Monday, June 19, 2023. Photographer: Benjamin Girette/Bloomberg via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Call it a Musk effect: the success of constellations like SpaceX’s Starlink and Starshield has the Pentagon hungry for satellite communications (SATCOM) solutions with more capabilities, prompting firms like the French company Thales to shift their approach and even acquire new businesses, according to company executives.

“Requirements in the market are changing dramatically thanks to Elon Musk and SpaceX,” Aaron Brosnan, president of Thales subsidiary Tampa Microwave, said in an interview earlier this month on the sidelines of the SOF Week conference in Tampa. “Really now what the [US Defense Department] wants is terminals that can do any orbit, any network, any band, on the move.”

A response by Thales to that desire is to pitch the Ka-band Milli Sling Blade antenna manufactured by the Israeli company Get SAT. Thales acquired Get SAT in part for the rights to products like the Milli Sling Blade, which uses electronically steered phased array antenna technology.

“Thales confirms the acquisition of GET Sat,” a Thales official told Breaking Defense. “Get SAT will complement Thales’s existing global SATCOM business and enhance our secure satellite communications offering and leading position in communications integration.”

As opposed to when geostationary (GEO) satellites ruled the day, users now demand “lower latency, higher throughput, global coverage. And unfortunately, GEO can’t do that,” Brosnan said. “So that’s why Elon Musk picked LEO [low Earth orbit] and others have picked MEO [medium Earth orbit].”

A corresponding change is the desire for antennas that can communicate with more of those constellations, whether commercial or military. When users relied mostly on GEO satellites, Brosnan explained, GEO-focused parabolic antennas could easily connect to those satellites since they remained in a mostly fixed position. But fast-moving MEO and LEO birds require electronically steered arrays that can track those satellites, creating a need for a different kind of communications tech.

So, Thales is moving to field antennas that can meet the needs of satellites across multiple orbits. The company’s modernized outlook “moves us away from what was traditionally GEO-only parabolics towards electronically steered arrays, which is flat panel technology,” Brosnan said, pointing to the Milli Sling Blade on display at Thales Defense & Security’s SOF Week booth. 

Get SAT’s Ka-band Milli Sling Blade antenna on display at SOF Week 2024. Thales acquired Get SAT in part to gain the rights to this kind of technology. (Michael Marrow/Breaking Defense)

The particular appeal for special operators (not to mention the US Army which has long been seeking more mobile antennas) is that the flat panel tech can serve users like them who are constantly on the move, with software that can handle more mundane tasks and let operators focus on their mission. “Either [the terminal is] fixed and the satellite’s moving, or you put the terminal on a vehicle. Maybe the satellite’s fixed, but the terminal’s moving,” Brosnan said. “So now you have an on-the-move solution.”

Electronically steered arrays offer other advantages, Brosnan noted, like the ability to shape beams in a particular direction and guide the null of an antenna toward a jammer, minimizing interference as a result.

Another key innovation lies in the modems that modulate certain SATCOM signals, which are transmitted as specific waveforms. The Pentagon is working on developing more secure waveforms under an umbrella program dubbed the Protected Anti-Jam Tactical SATCOM family of systems, which encompasses ground- and space-based tech. 

 “If you use the right modulation techniques, you can basically almost hide the signal in the noise,” Brosnan said. “But also by spreading it and hiding it in the noise, you can be fairly unsusceptible to jamming.”