Pacific Command Eyes ‘Layered’ Communications Network
U.S. Pacific Command officials are studying options for building a new communications network that would rely on a mix of military satellites, commercial satcom services and aircraft serving as gateways.
A hybrid space-aerial network would help increase capacity and resilience in case U.S. satellites are disrupted, said Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, commander of air forces at U.S. Pacific Command.
“For the future, we are looking at the ability to build a communications backbone that uses an aerial layered network,” Carlisle said July 29 during a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington, D.C.
Carlisle, who is based at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, warned that overreliance on satellite-based communications could cause problems for U.S. commanders if there were ever a conflict in the Asia-Pacific region.
Potential U.S. enemies have developed “joint anti-air raid campaign” plans that would seek to neutralize U.S. satellite communications, Carlisle said.
U.S. forces have enjoyed a huge advantage in space-based communications but it could be only a matter of time before an adversary finds a way to deny them that long-held sanctuary, Carlisle said.
PACOM officials are considering the possibility of deploying aerial networks similar to what the Army employed in Afghanistan, known as the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, or BACN.
The network can be set up with high-altitude unmanned aircraft such as Global Hawks that would be equipped with communications nodes that receive, bridge and distribute voice and data among all participants in a combat zone.
“We need resiliency to operate in a denied environment,” Carlisle said.
But adding layers to the network alone will not be enough to overcome a cyber, electronic or physical attack on U.S. satcom links, he said. U.S. commanders also will have to prioritize their communications needs so they can continue to fight a war even in a “degraded” environment, said Carlisle. They must set a minimum level of connectivity, which he called a “thin blue line of communication,” that covers only essential information. If pieces of the layered network become disabled, he asked, “What is the most important piece of information we need to pass? … If we have to go down to a thin blue line, how do we make sure we are passing the right information and not superfluous information? And how do we work in degraded conditions? We are looking at all that for the future satcom architecture.”
U.S. allies in the region, too, worry about the possibility that a technologically advanced military foe such as the People’s Republic of China could deny them access to satellite communications during a conflict. India’s Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne, has sought U.S. Pacific Command’s help to create a military space office that would address these issues. India’s space programs currently are under civilian control but they could soon become militarized. “Air Chief Marshal Browne wants to create a military space program to operate in a contested environment,” said Carlisle. “We are helping set up the organization.”
Defense officials in Washington have long been debating satcom vulnerability concerns, especially following the release of the Obama administration’s pivot-to-Asia strategy.
“The Defense Department is starting to think about a new milsatcom architecture” that would be better able to withstand enemy attacks, said Todd Harrison, a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.In a new study published last week by CSBA, Harrison offers several recommendations on how the Pentagon could modernize and harden its networks.
About 93 percent of current satcom links are unprotected, said Harrison. “Current systems are not in tune with the new reality,” he said. “They can't operate in contested environments.”
An aerial network like that favored by Carlisle is worth considering as a means to increase capacity, Harrison said. But an aerial system would be even more vulnerable to attacks than satellites, he said. “The aircraft can't be stealthy,” he said. “There are limits where you can use them.”
Depending on the altitude and number of aircraft used, an aerial communications layer can provide high-capacity communications to supplement or replace military satcom within a region, the CSBA study said. “The aircraft used to provide an aerial communications layer can only operate in permissive airspace. They are by definition high emitters and can be targeted by air defense systems. An aerial communications layer is therefore not a viable alternative in situations where the air domain is contested.”
Harrison agrees with Carlisle about the need to ration satcom use so that critical information can be transmitted via protected links and non-essential data are relegated to less-secure commercial satellite systems.
Particularly in Asia, said Harrison, the United States should team up with allies and invest in new, more secure, satcom systems, not only to spread the cost but also to create an added layer or protection against attacks. “We could give them shared use of [a satellite] constellation.” If an adversary were to attack a multination satellite, for instance, the strategic cost of doing so would be greater than if it were a U.S.-only spacecraft, said Harrison.
Carlisle said the United States already is hosting an Australian payload on a military satellite and could consider other ways to partner with friendly nations in the region. “Clearly this is something worth thinking about.”