Are Taiwan's own LEO satellite programs combat-ready?

Misha Lu, DIGITIMES Asia, Taipei 0

A Ukrainian soldier installing a Starlink terminal. Credit: Wikimedia

Taiwan's recent efforts to build its own "Starlink" have received growing attention as satellite communication has proven itself inalienable to wartime resilience, but to what degree are the ongoing government-backed satellite programs geared for modern warfare?

In a recent CNN interview with Wu Jong-shinn, the director-general of Taiwan Space Agency (TASA), Taiwan's satellite program has been put under the international spotlight: though Wu indicated that TASA has been developing a total of six Beyond 5G (B5G) communication satellites, and the first of which is expected to be launched by 2026, CNN also cited various experts noting that a larger satellite constellation would be needed to provide sufficient satellite coverage. For example, as reported by CNN, Australian astrophysicist Brad Tucker estimated that at least 50 satellites would be needed, and hundreds of satellites would be required to provide a reliable bandwidth. Su Tsu-yun, a director of Taiwan's National Defense and Security Research, was also quoted by CNN saying that it'd be "unrealistic" to think Taiwan would be able to provide all-around internet coverage with just a few indigenous satellites.

What's a realistic plan, then? Especially in terms of wartime deployment, figuring out the right application scenario at this time could be more decisive than the size of the constellation. Currently, there are two ongoing Taiwanese government-led projects to operate communication satellite constellations for wartime applications: one is the aforementioned TASA-backed B5G initiative that will launch the first low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite in 2026, followed by another in 2028. According to the TASA director-general, the first two LEO satellite buses will be made in Taiwan, but the Ku-band payload of the first B5G satellite will depend on cooperation with overseas suppliers via public tender, with 3-4 potential suppliers.

At the current stage, the Taiwanese electronics industry is more adept at making ground equipment. Nevertheless, TASA will cooperate with the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) to produce the payload on the second B5G satellite, and the follow-up four satellites are expected to be produced by the private sector in Taiwan. At least 120 such satellites are needed to reach a degree of communication resilience though, said Wu.

The other initiative has been undertaken by the Ministry of Digital Affairs (MODA) to strengthen national communication network resilience during contingency or wartime. Relying on Non-Geostationary Satellite Orbits (NGSO) as a backup communication network, the plan seeks to deploy 700 user terminals near key infrastructure across Taiwan, including sites related to defense, by the end of 2024. There will also be 3 user terminals deployed abroad, one of them in the United States, according to a MODA official. Out of 100,000 cell stations across Taiwan and its island outposts, 70 of them of strategic importance will also be strengthened by satellite backhauls in 2024. Currently relying on the LEO satellites operated by the UK-based Eutelsat Oneweb and the medium Earth orbit (MEO) satellites operated by the Luxembourg-based SES, MODA's plan ultimately seeks to build a system enabling functions like video conference, live streaming, and phone calls for Taiwan's president and municipal government heads.

Even though MODA mentioned cooperation with Taiwan's defense establishment in the satellite communication program, it remains unclear to what degree the satellite service providers OneWeb and SES will support Taiwan's defense endeavors if military tension rises in the region, according to a source familiar with Taiwan's armed forces. Likewise, the practical defense potentials of both MODA and TASA programs, such as integration with the Taiwanese military's command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems, remain under-explored.

In fact, when it comes to satellite communication, Taiwanese armed forces have been relying on the geostationary satellite ST-1, later succeeded by ST-2, from 1998 on. ST-1, jointly operated by Singapore Telecom and Taiwan's Chungwha Telecom, was de-commissioned in 2011, and its successor ST-2 is expected to be replaced in 2029. In early 2023, Chungwha Telecom revealed the intention to cooperate with Singapore Telecom on ST-X, the successor to ST-2, and relevant work will begin in 2026.

Back in 2003, Taiwan's army began to field a satellite communications system developed by the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST) to connect with ST-1 and its successors. Featuring both fixed and mobile terminals, the system was later upgraded to enable satellite connection on the move (SOTM), providing command and control (C2) information, video, audio, and data transmission during operations. However, the system is deployed as a backup mainly at the theater-command level and can support brigade-level tactical communications when primary communication means, such as fiber-optics, microwave, and tactical data links, fail. In other words, ST-2 seems to be inaccessible at the battalion level, even though combined arms battalions are the main maneuver units in Taiwan's army.

Additionally, according to sources, the MQ-9B unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) being procured by Taiwan and the indigenously developed Teng Yun UAVs will also be remote-controlled via the ST-2 satellite, showing the growing importance of satellites in multiple military applications in Taiwan. The reliance on ST-2, on the other hand, also sheds light on another dimension that Taiwan's wartime satellite communication programs should factor in, namely counter-satellite measures via kinetic or electromagnetic means. An expert previously pointed out that the commercial-grade ST-2 satellite is vulnerable to interference.

As the Taiwanese military service branches strive to complete, upgrade, and eventually integrate their respective C4ISR systems, it remains to be seen how the ongoing government-backed satellite communication programs can be incorporated to form a common operational picture for joint forces, as exemplified by a recent US Space Force experiment that successfully broadcasted Link-16, a tactical data link used by US and NATO forces, from LEO satellites, enabling beyond line-of-sight (BLOS) communications.