Soldiers of the Ukraine army's 95th Brigade walk past a Starlink satellite internet receiver on February 18, 2024 in Ukraine.

Soldiers of the Ukraine army's 95th Brigade walk past a Starlink satellite internet receiver on February 18, 2024 in Ukraine. Getty Images / Scott Peterson

Why DOD’s network agency is SATCOM-curious

The Defense Information Systems Agency is experimenting with multiple satellite communications providers as it works to make the network more resilient.

Russia’s war on Ukraine has the Pentagon’s IT agency wanting to bring Starlink-like satellite communications to defense networks. But keeping the classified data secure will be a challenge. 

“If we were curious about [proliferated low-Earth orbit] before, we are super interested now,” Army Col. Jeff Strauss, the Defense Information Systems Agency’s deputy for acquisitions, said during a Washington Technology event Friday. “And what that reinforces for us is the ability for a resilient network and to be able to do that multipath…to have [multiple] paths of communication simultaneously all the time.”

PLEO satellite communications—including Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper—have become increasingly popular for military uses thanks to relatively lower costs and the ability to have multiple paths of communication.  

“We are really looking at: how do we get resiliency and redundancy. That's multipath. That's fusing different types of communication technology together almost organically, almost that it happens automatically,” Strauss said. “When I'm a user in the field and I need to push a button to talk or log in. I really don't care how it gets to the other end. I just want it to get to the other end.”

PLEO satellites operate closer to the Earth, move quickly, and can work en masse, which can translate to better security, Strauss said. 

But the challenge is in connecting those constellations to the DOD’s networks securely. 

“How do you get from Starlink into the [Defense Information Systems Network]? There's risks there today. You gotta come in through the dirty internet,” Strauss said. 

Because of how DOD secures its networks, traffic flowing from the internet must funnel through a myriad of choke points.

“When we start looking at using that for classified systems, and utilizing the commercial providers network, it gets a little wonky for us, right,” Strauss told Defense One. “There's a whole bunch of barriers that we put in place to protect us from the internet. All of that delays traffic, all of that blocks things, all of that doesn't work with certain protocols.”

DISA is experimenting with Starlink, Amazon, and the Navy to see how to “embed” PLEO into DOD’s network, Strauss said, stressing that the agency is not locked in with any one vendor. The agency is also planning to award $900 million in task orders for PLEO services over five years. 

“Imagine trying to hit a basketball in outer space with a missile pretty hard. Hitting something the size of a school bus in outer space with a missile that's not moving real fast may be easier, right? So that is why PLEO is interesting to us. How it provides us a level of security, just security through mass,” he said during the event. “We love mass in the Department of Defense. More tanks, the better. And we apply that same logic to satellites.”