Space Command Looks To Fill Communication Gaps as Budgets Tighten

By Stew Magnuson
“Doing more without more,” — the mantra coming from the office of the secretary of defense — is a challenge for the Air Force as it tries to keep pace with growing demands for its satellite communications.

“Despite the reduced budgets, we are seeing a growth in our secure communications requirements,” said Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of the Air Force’s space and missile center in Los Angeles.

The space domain, according to the National Space Policy, was centered around the so-called “three Cs.” Space is “contested, congested and competitive.” Add to that two more “Cs:” cost constrained, officials have noted.

The problem is that developing, building and launching military communications satellites is one of the most expensive and complex tasks the U.S. military undertakes.

“How do we continue to progress in space — particularly in our satellite communications arena — at the same time without large budgets?” she asked at the Milcom conference in Baltimore.

The Air Force is in the process of producing a satellite communication architecture study that will seek new ways to develop and deliver the services that the military has come to rely upon. Meanwhile, it is in the process of fielding two powerful new satellite communications fleets, the Advanced-EHF (extremely high frequency) and the Wideband Gapfiller System.

But even with these new constellations, there are still large communication gaps the Air Force would like to fill. One is EHF satellite communications for tactical communications on the move. The new Advanced-EHF satellites are intended for high-level strategic communications and are poorly suited for pushing information down to lower echelons, such as platoons moving in tactical-wheeled vehicles.

The other shortfall is meeting increasing demand for bandwidth that controls and transmits data from the four services’ fleets of unmanned aerial vehicles. Commercial satellite providers currently fill the gaps, but their services don’t come cheap. They also do not provide the protection from jamming military communications normally require.

As the fight for increasingly scarce resources heats up, the good news for the Air Force is that spaced-based communications are indispensable, said Gil Klinger, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space and intelligence at the office of the secretary of defense.

Klinger is the voice at OSD attempting to impose fiscal discipline on the Air Force when it comes to acquiring space assets. They are the “dial tone” for national security. That is a double-edged sword, though. The connection is essential, but like a dial tone, it is taken for granted, he said.

“We actually want to buy more of what you do rather than less,” Klinger said.

“We have to recognize that our programs are too expensive and there are too many in the pipeline,” he said.

That is not a reflection of the value they provide, he added. It is simply the cost-constrained environment the military finds itself in.

Pawlikowski said the Air Force must overcome the bad reputation it has suffered in the aftermath of several high-profile programs that ran over budget and were delayed. The Transformational-Satellite was one such program. It was heading in that direction before it was cancelled in 2009. The first Advanced-EHF satellite was launched in August 2010 after almost a decade of development and several setbacks. A glitch in the propulsion system forced the spacecraft to take 14 months longer than expected to reach its geo-synchronous orbit some 24,000 miles above the Earth.   

Pawlikowski suggested several areas where the Air Force can both save funds and rectify these costly delays.

Building satellites, like many military acquisition programs, has suffered from “requirements creep.” The addition of new capabilities while a program is still under development adds millions to a program and causes setbacks.

Satellite programs have their own special kind of requirements creep, though. A large military communication spacecraft takes seven years to build and a new program comes along every decade or so.

There is a tendency to throw every requirement in from the beginning or add them as the program goes along “because they know if they don’t get it in now they may not see it in their lifetime,” she said.

Satellites are not trucks, or even fighter jets. Once they go into orbit, there are no modernization programs, or retrofitting. The technology is basically frozen in place for the lifetime of the spacecraft, which could be a decade or longer.

To get at that problem, the space and missile center recently signed a fixed-price contract with The Boeing Co., to build the WGS seven through nine satellites.

This is the way commercial satellite companies procure their spacecraft and differs from the cost-plus contracts the military normally signs. In that case, if new requirements are added, the vendor is normally happy to do the extra work, but at a price, she told National Defense.

This will impose discipline both on the Air Force and the contractor. Boeing will have to absorb the costs of any failures on its part. And the requirements community will not be able to insert new demands into the spacecraft, or add new technologies that may come along before it is finished.

“It’s a military satellite built with commercial practices,” she said.

“We are getting some awesome capability at a very good price. And I don’t think Boeing is going to be losing any money on that contract,” she added.

Meanwhile, the space community needs to put its focus on savings on the ground. The satellites and the rockets that launch them are huge, upfront expenditures, but end up being only 30 percent of the total cost of a program. The ground stations and the terminals that send and receive data from Earth take up the remainder, but there has been little thought in the past about efficiencies in those two realms, Pawlikowski said.

Each communication satellite program has its own ground station system that controls the spacecraft and provides direct links. Those need to be consolidated, she said.  

The problem is that while the Air Force space center does control development of the ground stations, the individual services acquire and build the terminals that go into vehicles, command-and-control centers and aircraft. An issue that has never been solved is the lack of coordination between the spacecraft programs and the services. Satellites are sometimes launched before a terminal is ready, and vice versa.

“Terminal costs can be exorbitant and we have got to figure out how to leverage what we have,” Pawlikowski said.

The terminals are also found in unmanned aerial vehicles. These aircraft have been fielded with little thought about how they will communicate with the operators, who are often stationed all the way around the world, said Douglas Loverro, the space and missile center executive director.

When more bandwidth to operate these aircraft is needed, it’s purchased from commercial providers.

Pawlikowski said: “Every time we brought a new capability on, we bought communication capability on the spot market and didn’t think about what the long term [impact] is.”

That is fine in permissive environments such as Iraq and Afghanistan where there are no peer enemies with the sophisticated means to jam signals, or intercept feeds, but that may not always be the case, she added.

The answer is to design in functionality, survivability and affordability — not only in the space segment — but ground control segment and terminals from the beginning of the program, she said. The center released a Design for Affordability broad area announcement seeking ideas from industry on how to do that.

Klinger said: “We in government — probably more than you in industry — need to focus more on engineering for cost reduction and cost control.”

The Air Force has also successfully convinced allies to chip in for satellite purchases. Nations such as the United Kingdom, Canada and the Netherlands have contributed funds to build the Advanced-EHF satellites in exchange for being part of its network. Australia has a similar deal for the WGS fleet.

Pawlikowski said negotiations for similar deals are ongoing.

Hosted payloads, where a military communication package is placed aboard a commercial or civilian satellite, is another cost-saving idea. The Tactical-EHF concept could be on a small, quickly built spacecraft, or hosted on a commercial satellite depending on where it needs to be in, she said.

So far, there is no program of record for the satellite, but she hopes some of the reductions gained from the WGS fixed-price contract will be reinvested into the idea.

Loverro said the needs are always going to outstrip the capacity. It won’t be long before the nine WGS satellites aren’t enough.

“I don’t know what the future of DoD looks like. I don’t know what systems we’ll be building, but I do know we’re all going to need satcom. And we don’t have a choice,” he said.                                   

Topics: C4ISR, Space

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