Air Force Weighs Options to Meet Skyrocketing Bandwidth Demand

By Breanne Wagner

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The ever-increasing bandwidth demands on military networks have created new pressures on the Air Force and the space industry to address these needs.

Officials worry that current satellite communications systems are not adequate to satisfy the growing requirements. They also acknowledge that they must make improvements soon because next-generation systems will not be available for many years.

“Everything I have seen shows [there is] probably double the amount of legitimate demand versus the capacity that we have available,” says Lt. Gen. Michael Hamel, commander of space and missile systems center at Air Force Space Command.

“We’re getting the job done but it’s not being done in a way that meets user needs,” Hamel says.

Independent analysts estimate that U.S. government demand for satellite bandwidth has nearly doubled, from approximately 7 gigabits per second (Gbps) in 2003 to 12 Gbps in 2007, according to Northern Sky Research, a telecommunications market research and consulting firm. Analysts expect the demand to reach 16 Gbps by 2012.

For the military, it is not just about more bandwidth but also high levels of protection from cyber-threats. Commercial companies today provide 80 percent of military sat-com, which raises questions about how secure they really are, Hamel tells reporters at the Space Foundation’s national space symposium here.

“Commercial satellite options provide a readily available source of bandwidth, but it also has downsides in that it is not as well protected.”

He adds that by using commercial systems, the military has to compete for limited bandwidth with other users, such as the media.

Lt. Gen. Kevin Campbell, commander of the Army Space and Missile Defense Command, agrees that secure sat-com is the primary shortfall.

Hamel says the military is looking to dramatically increase secure sat-com capacity when it deploys the Transformational-Satellite, or T-Sat.

But budget and schedule uncertainties have called into question the future of T-Sat, prompting the Defense Department to seek out less complex, near-term alternatives.

T-Sat is designed to transfer secure video, voice and other data through laser links, rather than radio frequencies, with thousands of times more capacity than currently available systems. With on-board digital processing and Internet protocol routing, the system will be able to connect users anywhere in the world, officials say.

Boeing and Lockheed Martin have submitted proposals for the estimated $16 billion program. The government has awarded each company nearly $500 million to develop the technology.

The Pentagon has cut almost $4 billion from the fiscal year 2009 budget. Originally scheduled for launch as early as 2009, that date has been pushed back to around 2018, according to the latest estimates. However, Air Force officials have recently backed away from giving a firm date.

“We don’t know any schedule,” says Gary Payton, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs.

With T-Sat under fire, the Air Force is seeking out other options to fulfill the mission, Payton tells reporters. In April, Pentagon officials were finishing up a study examining all possible T-Sat alternatives.

The Air Force is trying to find out if it can “intelligently back away from some of those needs, “ Payton says.

The results of the study were scheduled to be submitted to Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England in May.

Among the options are two systems already in development for the military: the wideband global sat-com, or WGS, and the advanced extremely high frequency satellite, known as AEHF. Both are seen as less capable predecessors to T-Sat.

“One possible alternative to T-Sat is AEHF and WGS forever. Just take what we’re building currently and just continue ad infinitum,” Payton says. However, “that obviously falls short in a lot of areas.”

The first WGS spacecraft completed tests over the Pacific Ocean and Boeing, its manufacturer, handed it over to U.S. Strategic Command in April. WGS replaces the aging defense satellite communications system, or DSCS. “One WGS satellite will provide more communication capacity than the entire DSCS constellation currently on orbit,” according to an Air Force news release.

The AEHF constellation, which was designed to replace the classified Milstar satellites, will enable high capacity, protected communications. The first spacecraft is expected to launch in January 2009. It provides 10 times the capability of Milstar with a satellite about half the size, says Northrop Grumman.

Northrop is building the communications payload for prime contractor Lockheed Martin. The Air Force planned to purchase three AEHF satellites at a price of nearly $6 billion. Then, Congress directed the service to buy a fourth one in light of T-Sat delays. The fourth would complete the ring of AEHF satellites around the globe, Payton says.

Both WGS and AEHF will provide a leap in capability for the military, but the Air Force insists that T-Sat is still the best option for the future.

The issue with WGS is that it’s not fully secure, Payton says. “WGS is encrypted but not protected.” T-Sat is hardened against detection and jamming, he explains. The military has this capability now with the Milstar constellation and will eventually have it with AEHF, but those satellites have a relatively low data rate compared to T-Sat, Payton says. While AEHF provides a 10-fold increase in capability compared to Milstar, T-Sat will boost data capacity by another factor of 10 to 4,000 megabits per second.

The critical advantage with T-Sat is the ability to “push that communication capability down to the lower echelons of Marines, Army folks whether they’re on the move or not,” Payton says. “That’s what makes T-Sat so desirable.”

Satellite manufactures have also begun to look at alternatives. Boeing officials say that the company has completed several internal studies examining what to do if T-Sat is further delayed, or never comes to fruition.

Dave Bever, Boeing director of government programs for space and intelligence systems, says that WGS, for example, could be augmented to provide more T-Sat-like capability. Engineers could upgrade WGS for the sat-com on-the-move mission, as well as for airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, he says. For sat-com on-the-move, WGS would need a slightly larger, more powerful antenna to be able to beam data down to a fast-moving humvee. The challenge is to fit the antenna on the actual satellite and make sure that it doesn’t interfere with other missions, Bever says. “It’s not a hard problem, it’s just one we haven’t addressed.”

Boeing is also considering the Spaceway commercial communications system as a possible alternative. Spaceway was created for Hughes Network Systems Inc. It is already in orbit and has an advanced Internet router on board, which would enable it to perform some T-Sat missions, Bever says. However, Spaceway is not a protected communications system like AEHF or T-Sat.

The benefit of WGS and Spaceway is that they provide lower cost options.

While studying alternatives to T-Sat, military leaders are also evaluating sat-com needs over the next several decades as the Defense Department continues to develop network-centric systems.

Hamel says the Air Force is reexamining the relationship between the Army’s Future Combat Systems and T-Sat to make sure the requirements of FCS are in sync with the satellite’s capabilities.

As part of the Pentagon’s alternatives study, officials are examining ways to marry the FCS schedule with T-Sat. FCS is envisioned as a wide-ranging Army modernization effort to link soldiers with weapons, sensors and information systems through an advanced network. It will use T-Sat technology for Internet connectivity and sat-com on-the-move.

Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne suggests that before a contract is awarded, the user needs to “step back a little bit and say, ‘is this really what you want’”?

Campbell, of the Army’s space command, asserts that, “FCS will be reliant on overhead communications.” But he says the ground service wants options for that mission because “no one knows what’s going to happen with T-Sat.”

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Topics: C4ISR, Tactical Communications, Space

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