A local legal battle over a U.S. Navy communications outpost in Sicily risks muting vast swaths of high-speed satellite communications coverage for U.S. forces in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
At issue is a ground communication station tied to the Navy’s new $7.8 billion Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) high-speed satellite communications network. The Italian based station, one of four, is currently shut down due to a court order from the Sicilian municipality of nearby Niscemi, according to a Thursday statement from Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) to USNI News.
For more than a year the Niscemi ground station has been shut down and despite a recent court ruling that would clear the way Italian defense ministry, there’s no clear legal path forward to reactivating the ground station. Last week an Italian court ruled in favor of the Italian defense ministry in one of two case between locals upset with the installations – the No MUOS collation who have fought the site for ten years. However, there are other legal challenges in different parts of the national and local legal systems that could keep the site offline for longer.
“We are still determining how this ruling will affect the unresolved court challenges that remain,” Patrick Alwine, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Rome told USNI News on Wednesday.
“Given the decision and the importance of MUOS for our mutual security in the Mediterranean, we are confident that Italian authorities will be able to resolve quickly all remaining court challenges.”
Unlike other legal challenges the Navy has faced when met with local opposition to installations in the U.S., the service and the U.S. government are not a party in the ongoing legal disputes with the MUOS ground station and has to watch from the sidelines.
“The main defendant is the Italian ministry of defense, who acted as a guarantor of the agreement allowing the U.S. Navy to build the receptors,” read an early May story from Defense One.
“The plaintiffs are a group of organizations (including the World Wildlife Fund) led by the No-MUOS committee, who oppose the MUOS on grounds that range from the ethical and environmental to protection of health.”
Regardless of the legal standing of the installation, the onoing shutdown of the Sicily station, “risks ability to conduct worldwide operations with full capacity and system redundancy in 2016 if there are further delays for operations of the MUOS Niscemi ground station,” according to a Thursday statement from SPAWAR.
The MUOS satellites are perched in geosynchronous orbit over their respective geographical coverage areas. The ground stations both transmit and receive data from the satellites and those with MUOS capable radios. The station in Sicily is close to the center of the coverage of the satellite and in an ideal position for clear transmissions to the MUOS over the region.
Unlike the 1990s Ultra High Frequency Follow-On (UFO) system the Pentagon currently uses for satellite communications, the MUOS radios can be used on the move, transmit data at speeds of a smartphone on a broadband cellular network and operate through dense top cover like a jungle canopy.
However, without the Italian ground station U.S. forces would be unable to use many of the next generation features of the system in most of Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
Without the ground station, users of MUOS radios could probably still talk to each other by bouncing their messages off the satellite. They could also use one of these MUOS-equipped ships or aircraft as a ground station, but this would significantly reduce the bandwidth of the system, said Bryan Clark, naval analyst Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA)
The use of the system on the move will be an important feature, particularly for ground forces. Voice and data communication networks during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were well established over a decade of fighting but future conflicts will likely not allow U.S. forces to construct similar extensive communication networks.
MUOS capable radios are slowly trickling into U.S. forces after years of stops and start and aren’t widely used yet. But given the site in Sicily covers the one of the areas where the U.S. has been the most active in the last decade, getting MUOS coverage for Africa and the Middle East online is a priority for the Pentagon.
While the military is eager for the coverage to go online for MUOS there is one option not yet on the table, according to the Navy.
“There has been no discussion of alternate sites or of moving the NRTF Niscemi MUOS ground station to another location,” SPAWAR said.