An Atlas V rocket carrying the MUOS-5 mission lifts off from Cape Canaveral space launch complex.
A critical Navy satellite program continues to face challenges as the Defense Department and its industry partners seek to improve the communications capabilities of deployed troops.
The $7 billion mobile user objective system, known as MUOS, is designed for narrowband communications. It aims to give U.S. forces a global smartphone-like capability with its new wideband code division multiple access waveform.
The system is expected to provide troops with higher data rates and voice quality, improved operational availability, and access to the Global Information Grid and Defense Information Systems Network voice and data services.
Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor.
“MUOS is bringing a game-changing technology to the joint warfighter,” said Rear Adm. Christian “Boris” Becker, program executive officer for space systems as well as command, control, communications, computers and intelligence.
“It’s a cell phone network with towers at 22,000 miles” above the Earth, he said during a recent conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But the program has encountered difficulties that have hindered it from reaching its full potential. MUOS was originally expected to achieve full operating capability in March 2014. That date was later pushed back to January 2017, and the schedule appears to have again slipped significantly. The FOC milestone is now projected to not be reached until fiscal year 2019, according to Steven A. Davis, a spokesman for Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command.
“While MUOS [wideband code division multiple access] is an extremely promising, game-changing capability, we recognize that there is still work to do to deliver the system’s full suite of capabilities to warfighters,” Davis said in an email.
“We also recognize that the transition from legacy UHF satcom to MUOS WCDMA is a large leap for our end users, and we are working closely with Army Forces Strategic Command to improve [the system’s] ease of use … and address any challenges in the transition,” he added.
When asked why the expected FOC date had been pushed to the right, Davis said: “The schedule for reaching FOC is dependent on completing all the operational testing and evaluation required to make sure the system is fully ready for warfighter use.”
The capability has been in the early combatant commander use phase since July 2016. This provides operators the opportunity to exercise, train and develop concepts of operations using the new system, Davis noted.
The technology will remain in this phase until the program successfully completes follow-on operational test and evaluation, currently projected for fiscal year 2019. A declaration of FOC will immediately follow, he said.
A major challenge for the program is that many of the U.S. military’s communications terminals such as man-portable radios are not capable of using the advanced waveform.
“The biggest issue is just getting enough MUOS-capable terminals out in the field,” said Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at CSIS. “They’ve got to build up that user base so they can take full advantage of the satellite.”
The first MUOS satellite was launched in 2012, and the system is already operational. But the U.S. military has not fully tapped its potential.
“These satellites started coming online and there was not much of a user base of troops that had the proper equipment with the right waveform to take advantage of the new capability,” Harrison said. “There was a lack of synchronization between the space segment of the program and the user segment.”
The communications system is of great interest to the other services, not just the Navy. Allied nations are expected to use it as well.
“The capabilities provided by MUOS are probably most important to our ground forces because they tend to be some of the largest users of narrowband satcom,” Harrison noted.
The Army’s joint tactical radio system program was supposed to provide terminals that could use the new MUOS waveform. But when the program ran into problems, the Army decided to deprioritize the waveform, Harrison said.
“That meant that there were not going to be many radios available to use MUOS once it became active on orbit,” he said. “It’s a lack of coordination in the budgeting and the prioritization across different acquisition programs.”
“We have an interdependency across different systems that we’re acquiring but we’re not managing that interdependency well,” he added.
In February 2016, the Army awarded contracts to Harris Corp., Rockwell Collins and General Dynamics worth up to $12.7 billion for radios — including accessories and support services — that can take advantage of MUOS’ capabilities. The service plans to buy more than 60,000 over the next 10 years. Full-rate production is expected to begin in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2017.
General Dynamics, Harris and Rockwell Collins have already developed MUOS-capable AN/PRC-155, AN/PRC-117G and AN/PRC-162 radios, respectively. More than 55,000 currently fielded radios can be upgraded to use the new technology, with many of them just requiring a software upgrade, according to Lockheed Martin.
But many legacy terminals don’t have that option, Harrison said.
“The legacy systems for the most part were not software reprogrammable, so you can’t just load a new waveform into them,” he said. “Really it’s about buying new user equipment that’s capable of running the new waveform.”
The Defense Department has also experienced challenges with the satellite constellation. MUOS-5, which launched in June, suffered a propulsion system failure that prevented it from reaching its planned orbit. In October, the program partially recovered from the mishap.
“The Navy and Lockheed Martin engineering team were able to isolate the issue and develop a work-around using alternative propulsion,” Mark Woempner, the director of narrowband communications systems at Lockheed, said in a company press release.
MUOS-5 was raised to “an operationally suitable orbit,” and the satellite deployed its solar arrays and antennas and began pre-operational testing, SPAWAR said in a statement.
“What we did was figure out how to use the existing onboard fuel for station-keeping to propel us to an orbit that will provide us operational utility,” Becker said.
“It won’t be the same orbit we intended, it won’t be under the same conditions. But we were able to achieve an orbit that is roughly geosynchronous with enough fuel to keep us in an operational condition,” he added.
The Navy believes MUOS-5 will still be usable but “we still have to test out the communications payloads and that will be an ongoing process,” he said.
The failure to get the system into the planned orbit was “a big setback” for the program,
MUOS satellite concept artwork
The fact that MUOS-5 was intended to be a spare might lessen the immediate impact, he noted. Nevertheless, experts believe it is critical to have redundant spacecraft in case something goes wrong with any of the primary satellites.
“It is incumbent upon us to seek redundancy and resiliency,” Becker said. “Just as we would have redundant systems in an airplane … we have to have redundant systems for providing the information that a commander needs to execute their mission.”
The four ground stations are another key element of the program. Located in Virginia, Hawaii, Australia and Italy, they are especially integral because MUOS uses an “M-hop” architecture. The signal has to travel from users’ equipment up to one of the satellites, then down to a ground station using high-speed Ka-band data transmission before going back up to the satellite constellation and being routed to users on the receiving end of the communications.
“The ground station is critically important because every bit of communications has to pass through it,” Harrison noted.
The Navy has faced political opposition from local residents in Italy who believe that the ground station in Sicily poses a health risk due to radiation.
“We do not give a damn how much money the Americans have spent on this military toy,” said Marianna Garofalo of the group, Mothers Against MUOS, during a protest that took place in March 2016, according to Time magazine. “We are concerned about the health of our children and they treat us like a bunch of guinea pigs.”
For now, the system remains operational, Becker said. “We’ve come through some challenges … working with the local government there.”
The issue was handled by the Italian court system, and the U.S. Navy received permission to continue to operate the ground station, he noted.
Harrison said the health concerns were unfounded. “If you look at the science this was a non-issue to begin with. … There’s no risk to anyone around that area. But nevertheless, once people get worked up about it, sometimes the facts don’t matter.”
It’s hard to foresee if it will be a lingering concern, he said. “They’re probably in the clear for now but these kind of local political issues can be unpredictable, so you never know.”
Garofalo said opponents “will not give up and will continue to struggle.”
MUOS holds great promise despite its setbacks, experts said. It can provide more than 10 times the bandwidth capacity of the legacy ultra high frequency follow-on constellation, known as UFO.
“If you look at the technical capabilities of MUOS and the type of bandwidth and the number of users that can be on … at any given time, it is big leap ahead from the previous generation of satellites,” Harrison said.
“That’s important because the legacy UFO system was oversubscribed. It was very much in high demand,” he added.
MUOS technology was designed to operate in difficult terrain including urban areas and dense jungles. It has even been demonstrated to work effectively in the polar regions, Becker noted.
Now that all five satellites are on orbit and the services are working toward FOC, the Pentagon needs to decide what comes next, Harrison said. The first MUOS satellite was launched in 2012 with an expected lifetime of 15 years.
“The big decision that’s left is the follow-on,” he said. “The question is what is that going to be? Are they going to just buy another MUOS satellite that will be more expensive now because there’s been a break in production? Or is it time to move onto something else, to a next-generation?”
That decision will fall to President-elect Donald Trump’s new administration, he noted.
The Pentagon can’t afford to dither in deciding which path to pursue, Harrison said. “If you’re going to start a new development satellite, you probably need 10 years at least before you get to first launch,” he said.
If MUOS-1 is expected to reach the end of its service life around 2027, then a follow-on program needs to begin in 2017, he said. “They need to get going on this.”
The Defense Department should consider commercial solutions for the follow-on system, Harrison said. “If you look at capabilities offered by a lot of commercial satellite providers today, they’re really robust, in many cases better than what the military is launching” in terms of data rates and number of users.
The Pentagon would have several options, he said. It could buy dedicated capacity from commercial constellations, sign long-term leases, or “go to a commercial provider and say, ‘Build X number more of the satellites you’re already building and those satellites will be our own for our own exclusive use.’”
When pondering what comes next, the military needs to consider threats to space equipment. A system like MUOS could be vulnerable to enemies with sophisticated anti-satellite capabilities, Harrison noted.
“It’s a small number of satellites,” he noted. “They’re big, they’re very complicated, very expensive. And that presents a juicy target to an adversary.”
Commercial satellite architectures could mitigate the problem, he said. “If you go to something like a large constellation of smaller satellites in low-Earth orbit, that complicates the calculus for an adversary. Now they’ve got many more targets they would have to attack and they are dispersed.”
Buying commercial technology rather than undertaking an expensive satellite development effort could save the Pentagon money in an era of budget constraints and growing modernization bills.
“If there are commercial operators that are already building those kind of constellations, then it would just make economic sense to leverage what they’re already doing,” Harrison said.
Photos: Navy, Lockheed MartinRead more from our January 2017 issue on challenges in the space market:
Remote Sensing Firms Frustrated By Red Tape
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