Space Command Eyes New Stopgap Tactical Communications Satellite

By Stew Magnuson
BALTIMORE —  Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center is considering acquiring a new satellite that will bring secure communications to troops on the move, its commander said Nov. 10 at the Milcom conference.
Pushing high-speed communications that can support streaming video and other features to troops who are traveling in vehicles has been high on the military's wish list. However, the cancelation of the Transformational-Satellite program in 2009 has put that capability on hold. The first of a new series of powerful military communications satellites, the Advanced EHF, recently reached orbit, but it is primarily meant for high- level strategic communications designed to survive a nuclear attack rather than serving the so-called last tactical mile.
Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, Space and Missile Systems Center commander, said a "tactical EHF" satellite or hosted payload could fill that gap. A hosted payload is a new concept in  the space industry where a system piggybacks on a commercial or perhaps a civilian spacecraft. It can shave millions of dollars off a program by reducing the cost of launching the payload into orbit.
"Advanced EHF doesn't have the comms on the move that ground forces want," she told National Defense. The new satellite or payload would serve exclusively the tactical forces, she added.
The keys for such a program will be speed and affordability. Acquiring a large military communications satellite such as Advanced EHF is normally a seven-year process. Placing a hosted payload on a commercial satellite, or building a smaller spacecraft, could take as little as two to three years, she said.
Communication satellites operate in constellations, or fleets, in order to provide wide coverage. So a tactical EHF system could be a combination of small spacecraft or hosted payloads depending on what is most suitable for the area the military wants to cover, she added.
Pawlikowski said in remarks at Milcom that the command is looking to drive down the costs of acquiring satellites. New methods of doing business such as the fixed-price contracts it signed with The Boeing Co. to build a the Wideband Gapfiller Satellite system can produce savings. The command is looking to lower the costs of procuring future Advanced EHF satellites as well.  Some of those savings could also be invested in the tactical EHF concept, she said after the speech.
To that end, space command will be releasing a broad agency announcement that will ask industry for its ideas on how to reduce the cost of acquiring spacecraft. While there has always been a great deal of focus on the price of developing satellites, about 70 percent of a space program's funding goes toward the ground systems that support them. Gateways that receive and send data from Earth, and the terminals that the end users need are two places to look for savings, she said.
Each milsatcom system has its own gateways, she noted. Those must be consolidated.
"The days of individual gateways are over," she said.

Topics: C4ISR, Tactical Communications, Infotech, Space

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