Air Force to Focus on Driving Down the Cost of Terminals, Unveils New Way to Acquire Satellites

By Stew Magnuson

SAN DIEGO — While the Air Force has come under harsh criticism for cost overruns and delays acquiring expensive military communication satellites, the terminals used to connect to them back on Earth are the real culprits when it comes to the high cost of space programs, a senior official said Nov. 19.

David Madden, executive director of military satellite communications at the Space and Missile Center, said that "by far the number one cost in our business is the terminals, and the terminal integration." Terminal costs for a military satellite communication systems can run 20 to 30 times more than acquiring the actual spacecraft, he said at the MILCOM conference here.

One of the most depressing parts of his job is visiting a military unit and seeing its "terminal graveyard," where 30 or so of the devices from a former program are sitting unused. Every time there is a new satellite, the services are forced to develop a new terminal from the ground up. Space Command is looking at ways to leverage what is already available.

"How do we use the ones we've built, change the modems out, change the feed, and move forward? Instead we continue to start from ground zero in building new systems. How do we leverage the commercial terminal market and take advantage of that ... to drive down costs?" Madden asked.

Space Command, which has no new-start milsatcom programs on the horizon, is looking at terminals as one of several ways to save funding in a period of fiscal austerity. He gave attendees a brief rundown of what is coming in the five-year budget plan beginning in 2015.

"Affordability really is taking precedence over capability," he said.

New concepts include buying commercial transponders, and perhaps buying entire satellites, from companies operating fleets of spacecraft. The command has dubbed this proposed new way to acquire satcom capability "Commercial Pathfinder."

"We are looking to buy transponders on commercial satellites and utilize them. What we're finding is that it is significantly cheaper if we can buy the transponder on the satellite than it is for us to actually lease the system, and we can get significantly more bandwidth on orbit quicker to support the war fighter directly," he said.

Space command tried to do that in the past, but the acquisition policies were hard to get around and institutional resistance was significant, he said. "So we're going to start off small by buying a couple transponders and start looking at things like, how do I buy a satellite in somebody else's network and be able to get bandwidth across the entire enterprise?"

Another part of this upcoming program will be the development of a new waveform that can be integrated into the commercial satellite systems from which the Air Force leases capacity. The knock on them has been a lack of protection from jamming.

The "protected waveform" will be non-proprietary and hopefully create more interoperability between commercial and military communication satellites, he said. It could also be used on the Wideband Global System satellites, which are providing high-bandwidth to ground forces now, but do not have as robust anti-jamming protection, he said.

There will be funding in the 2015 budget for an on-orbit demonstration payload to prove that this new waveform works, and that it does reduce costs, he added.

Another investment in the 2015 budget will be the development of a new methods that will allow users of the Advanced-Extremely High Frequency satellite, which is designed to provide strategic command and control during a nuclear war, to better use its bandwidth for tactical communications.

"What most people don't know about Advanced-EHF is that we are pumping data through a soda straw because we want to guarantee comms in a strategic nuclear environment. But right now —  and we all hope that we will never be in a strategic nuclear environment — why don't we open the pipe up when we have a beautiful sunny day outside?" 
Space Command might be able to get 10 times more capacity out of the system in a nonnuclear environment, he said. 

It would also possibly allow for more on-the-move communications since the narrow, protected bandwidth Advanced-EHF uses requires large, cumbersome terminals, he added.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Space

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