U.S.-Norway satellite partnership promises communication dominance for Arctic forces


As warming trends and rising near-peer competition reinforce the strategic importance of the Arctic, United States military leaders are accelerating efforts to secure communication dominance in the polar region, including through innovative space-based collaboration with a NATO ally.

The U.S. Air Force, in partnership with Norway’s Ministry of Defence and Space Norway, will send communications payloads aboard two satellites scheduled to begin orbiting over an area north of the Arctic Circle in late 2022, according to Space Norway. The Norwegian government agency has contracted Northrop Grumman to design and manufacture the Arctic Satellite Broadband Mission (ASBM) system, which will be launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The project, which will include establishing a ground station in northern Norway, will provide mobile broadband coverage to military and civilian users in the Arctic for at least 15 years, Space Norway announced. Northrop Grumman also will provide the two Extremely High Frequency eXtended Data Rate payloads to be carried aboard the satellites for the U.S. Air Force, the U.S.-based company said.

The international partnership is a novel approach with “sweeping implications for the Arctic region,” according to U.S. Space Force Lt. Gen. Bill Liquori, deputy chief of space operations for strategy, plans, programs, requirements and analysis, and Iris Ferguson, a senior advisor to the U.S. Air Force.

“Space plays a fundamental role in national defense, and there are few places where that is truer than the Arctic, where the environment’s immense challenges and sparse infrastructure are tailor-made for space applications,” Liquori and Ferguson wrote in a July 14, 2021, article for the website C4ISRNET. “This partnership will provide protected satellite communications across the polar region for many of our forces. Working with a key ally allows the nation to get this critical payload into orbit sooner, and leveraging existing infrastructure will save nearly [U.S.] $1 billion.”

Domain awareness in the Arctic is vital to defending the North American homeland, according to U.S. Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

“It starts with the ability to communicate and provide data and information so that we can operate and have persistence in the Arctic,” VanHerck told U.S. congressional leaders in April 2021.

VanHerck recently requested almost U.S. $80 million for USNORTHCOM and NORAD to continue testing the use of commercially operated low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites to bolster the U.S. military’s communications capabilities in the Arctic, MilitaryTimes.com reported in June 2021. Limited satellite coverage can hamper connectivity among military forces operating at latitudes north of the Arctic Circle.

In addition to the U.S.-Norway partnership, the U.S. Air Force in 2021 will invest U.S. $50 million in testing polar satellites in LEO, which could speed data transmission and cut launch costs, Liquori and Ferguson wrote. The pilot program will involve leasing satellite services from private sector companies, which will deploy and operate the technology.

“If the systems work as planned, for the first time U.S. forces — with the Air Force, Space Force, Marine Corps, Navy, Army and Coast Guard — will enjoy reliable Arctic communications for missions ranging from search and rescue to complex training exercises,” they wrote. (Pictured: Members of the U.S. Marine Corps’ 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit launch a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System in Andoya, Norway, north of the Arctic Circle, in May 2021.)

Norwegian officials have called partnership with the U.S. imperative to their nation’s defense, particularly given the growing presence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia in the High North, where melting ice is opening sea routes and access to lucrative mineral deposits.

“The Arctic region has always been of great significance to transatlantic security, an importance that is only increasing,” Norwegian Defence Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen said during a March 2021 speech at an Atlantic Council conference on security in the Arctic.

While Russia has expanded its military and civilian infrastructure in the region, the PRC is strengthening its icebreaker capacity “and its space-related activities also involve the Arctic,” he said.

“It is essential for Norway to maintain and develop our relationship and cooperation with the United States,” Bakke-Jensen said. “The United States is our most important ally, a long-standing partner in the Arctic and of critical importance to Norwegian security.”