The US Department of Defense says it suffered over 250 major jamming attacks on its satellite communication systems in 2015. To counter this type of threat, Thales has been working on protected military satcom systems for over 30 years, and in June 2019, the French defence procurement agency awarded the company a first contract to upgrade the Syracuse III ground-based communication system as part of the Syracuse IV military satcom programme.
From cyberattacks on satellites to organised campaigns to detect, intercept and jam satcom signals, the battle for space has begun. These new threats have prompted the French government to set up a fifth military command structure, the Space Command, placed under the authority of the Air Force, which will ultimately become the French Air and Space Force.
A matter of sovereignty
Supremacy in space is becoming a key element of any sovereign geostrategic capability. With the rise in military operations overseas, it has become increasingly important for commanders in the home country and forces on deployment to access and share information quickly. The armed forces therefore need end-to-end, interoperable communication systems that are protected against electronic warfare threats and combine high data rates with operational mobility and round-the-clock availability.
With Thales, the worldwide No. 3 and European No. 1 in military satcom networks, France has a strategic hand to play. Unlike most countries, France has all the relevant skills and capabilities in place, plus the export capacity to invest in research and development over the long term. After more than 30 years working on satcom systems that are protected against electromagnetic interference and jamming, Thales has pulled out a significant lead over the competition.
The Thales strategy
Thales’s industrial and technological strategy in satcom ground segments is built around a number of key differentiators. The first is interoperability: Thales ground segments are designed to be compatible with all types of telecommunication satellites — dedicated and commercial — and with all sizes of fixed and mobile satcom stations and terminals for land and naval platforms (and soon for aircraft too). This design principle means that Thales solutions can be tailored to any set of operational requirements without impacting the performance of the communication system or overstretching customers' budgets.
The Thales transmission system is designed to adapt to the specific features of each type of satellite and works with any kind of satcom station or terminal. It achieves optimum security performance with satellites built by Thales Alenia Space thanks to intelligent cooperation between the two systems.
The second differentiator is independence, in the sense that customers/users can deploy their assets themselves. They operate their own systems, so only they know where each installation is located, and they can deploy or redeploy assets with minimum planning.
The third factor that differentiates Thales from the competition is the industrial ecosystem it has formed with a host of smaller specialist companies to build and integrate its networks and ground installations and terminals. In a field as complex as mission-critical communications, this ecosystem of experts is a key strength.
From Syracuse III to Syracuse IV
On 14 June 2019, the defence procurement agency officially launched the ground segment component of France’s Syracuse IV military satellite programme, awarding Thales a first major contract for the network management systems and naval satcom stations. Decisions on new mobile terminals for land vehicles and aircraft are pending.
The Syracuse IV programme will replace the Syracuse 3A and 3B satellites currently in orbit and provide an expanded and upgraded network of ground stations. A constellation of two satellites has been ordered under the first phase of the programme, to be built by Thales Alenia Space and Airbus Defence and Space. The first satellite, Syracuse 4A, will enter service in 2021. A third satellite is expected to come on stream in about 2028.
This upgrade will significantly enhance the performance of the satcom network in terms of the number of connected platforms, resistance to jamming, flexibility of deployment and bandwidth availability. Maximum data rates will rise from a few hundred megabits per second to several gigabits per second, boosting capacity by a factor of 10.
Satellite communications are crucially important for our forces and for the development of European military cooperation. As a pioneer in this field, Thales is helping the armed forces to gain and maintain operational superiority while building momentum within French industry.
Syracuse IV will benefit from Thales's satcom experience on two levels — in space-based systems through Thales Alenia Space, and in ground-based systems through the systems expertise amassed by the Group since 2004 as prime contractor for the Syracuse III* ground segment. The Thales solution will be built around the System21 highly secure transmission system and the dedicated management system already in service today with various countries in Europe and the Middle East.
The NATO-qualified System21 guarantees the availability and confidentiality of all communications and meets the need for spectral efficiency and high throughput in all types of electronic warfare threat environments: jamming, interference, interception, detection and cyberattacks.
A complex ecosystem
Military satcom systems require comprehensive expertise across multiple disciplines, as well as the ability to operate in difficult conditions caused by unintentional interference within the electromagnetic spectrum, for example, or by sudden variations in throughput related to extreme weather or environmental factors.
This calls for complete integration between all the different technologies —transmission, networks, encryption, radio, antenna, hardening and utilities — and between the corresponding disciplines and skill sets. Optimising satcom captability in terms of volume, environmental constraints, throughput and security ultimately needs to take all these different disciplines into account.
The odyssey continues
Deploying a space-based system is more like planning a city than building a house! It takes meticulous coordination and the flexibility to adapt as deployment contexts and operational requirements evolve. This is why it is so important to align the development of network systems on the one hand, and satcom stations on the other, to ensure long-term cohesion and integration and make the right trade-offs to secure future evolutions.
This coordinated approach will help ensure continuity of services from Syracuse III to Syracuse IV and guarantee on-time delivery of the programme.
Just 15 years ago, French exports of military satcom networks stood at less than €10 million a year. Thanks to this strategy, that figure is now ten time higher, and France has exported systems worth more than €1 billion over the last decade.
Syracuse is a French military communications programme based on secure, protected satellites and ground segments. The name is an acronym for SYstème de RAdioCommunication Utilisant un SatellitE (satellite-based radiocommunication system).
Syracuse provides a comprehensive communications capability between mainland France and units deployed overseas. The Syracuse I programme began in 1980, and three generations of satellites have been deployed since 1984.