The US Army has signed a three-year deal with SpaceX to test the company’s Starlink satellite-broadband service, SpaceNews reported today.
On May 20, the Army and SpaceX signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA), an Army source told the news organization. This will allow the Army to use Starlink broadband in order to determine whether it should be rolled out for wider use.
“CRADAs are commonly used by the military to evaluate technologies and services from the private sector before it commits to buying them,” SpaceNews wrote. “The Army in this case wants to be able to assess the performance of the Starlink low-Earth orbit [LEO] Internet service when connected to military systems. The Army will seek answers to key questions such as what ground equipment it will need to use Starlink and how much systems integration work could be required.”
The Army source who talked to SpaceNews said the deal with SpaceX will “allow the Army to understand potential applications of state-of-the art advancements in commercial RF SATCOM such as the new Starlink LEO constellation and modern SATCOM terminal developments capable of tracking LEO satellites.” The project will reportedly be overseen by Combat Capabilities Development Command’s C5ISR Center at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
The Army also previously signed CRADAs “with companies like Kratos and SES to assess the use of commercial SATCOM,” SpaceNews wrote. The Army is reportedly aiming to boost its satellite connectivity because its current system that accesses geostationary satellites has high latency and low capacity. “The Army’s command operations centers access geostationary satellites via large dishes that are mounted on trailers and not very mobile,” SpaceNews wrote, while quoting one Army official as saying the current system is like a “soda straw” because it doesn’t provide enough throughput to support its users.
“To use LEO broadband like Starlink the Army will need flat-panel antennas to track thousands of satellites. The cost of equipping Army units with new ground terminals will be one of the issues that the CRADA will investigate,” SpaceNews wrote. As one would expect, the Army will also evaluate security as part of its testing.
We contacted SpaceX and the Army about the deal today and will update this story if we get any response. (Update: An Army spokesperson responded to us and confirmed the details of its agreement with SpaceX.)
SpaceX president discussed military plans
SpaceX is in the process of launching thousands of low-Earth-orbit satellites to provide broadband with lower latency and higher speeds than what’s offered by geostationary satellites. SpaceX plans to offer broadband globally and in parts of the United States this year, with a focus on low-density areas that lack modern broadband.
In addition to its plan for residential broadband, SpaceX was already laying the groundwork for selling Starlink to the military. In October 2019, SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell told SpaceNews that it views the Army as a potential broadband customer. “We’re talking to the Army about Starlink and Starship,” she said at the time.
Shotwell also said in October that the Air Force is using Starlink to test encrypted Internet services for military planes, Reuters reported at the time. “We are delivering high bandwidth into the cockpit of Air Force planes,” Shotwell said. “Right now we’re just testing the capability and figuring out how to make it work.”
Contracts with military branches and other large organizations may be crucial to ensuring Starlink’s financial success. LEO satellite companies have a history of going bankrupt, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk recently said it would “be a big step to have like, more than zero [LEO satellite companies] in the not-bankrupt category.”