Getty Images / Anton Petrus

A key Pentagon data link can now talk to satellites—but not in the USA

A Link 16-to-space demonstration abroad went well. Could FAA approval for domestic tests be next?

The Pentagon has extended a widely used tactical data link into space, forging a key connection in its connect-everything effort. Now it needs permission from another arm of the federal government to try it in America.

In a trio of demonstrations held from Nov. 21 to 27, the Space Development Agency used Link 16 to bounce data from ground radios off satellites. The satellites were in low Earth orbit, but the radios were “within the territory of a Five Eyes partner nation,” SDA officials said in a Tuesday statement

That’s because the Federal Aviation Administration had declined requests for U.S.-based tests, citing concerns that the U.S.-and-NATO-standard gear might interfere with civil aircraft signals.

The demonstrations were part of the SDA’s effort to connect Link 16, which transmits common tactical pictures and various other types of communications, to the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture, a planned constellation of low-Earth-orbit satellites intended to be the military’s “space backbone.”

“Due to current Federal Aviation Administration restrictions that prevent broadcasting Link 16 from space into the U.S. National Airspace System, SDA coordinated with the [National Telecommunications and Information Administration] to obtain a waiver to transmit to a Five Eyes nation and over international water to meet established PWSA mission criteria,” the SDA statement said.

The successful demonstration may provide SDA with more evidence it can use to try to win FAA approval to test Link 16 over U.S. territory. 

“Testing Link 16 from space, first with an international partner and then over international water, represents a compromise position and SDA’s requirement remains to test over U.S. air space to demonstrate the feasibility of the PWSA and its ability to deliver fire control information to the warfighter over existing tactical data networks,” SDA said. 

Led by the Air Force’s 46th Test Squadron, the recent demonstrations ran on three satellites built by York Space Systems for the PWSA’s Tranche 0, part of an eventual 28-satellite group launched specifically to test out new concepts in space. These will pave the way for Tranche 1 and 2, which will begin delivering operational capabilities for warfighters in late 2024.  

“I can’t underscore enough the significance of this technical achievement as we demonstrate the feasibility of the Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture and its ability to deliver space-based capabilities to the warfighter over existing tactical data links,” SDA Director Derek Tournear said in the statement. “This is not only the first time Link 16 has been broadcast from space, but the beginning of turning the world’s finest warfighting force into a truly connected beyond line-of-sight joint force.”

The SDA statement said this moves the Pentagon one step closer to its vision to connect military assets across air, land, sea, and space.

“The PWSA Transport Layer is the backbone of JADC2 in space and will enable delivery of tactical messages, including beyond-line-of-sight scenarios, using Link 16 radios aboard space vehicles,” the statement said.