Powerful New UHF Satellite System Expected by End of 2015
The four spacecraft that comprise the core of the fleet should all be in orbit by the end of the year, which will give users seamless on-the-move links almost everywhere on the planet.
The satellites’ deployment will converge with that of the warfighter information network-tactical (WIN-T) increment 2, which will give individual ground troops unparalleled voice and data connectivity through nodes that connect to the spacecrafts’ robust UHF band.
“Never before have we been able to see a dismounted, disadvantaged, downrange pointy end [of the stick] soldier being able to talk thousands of miles back to another location,” said Chris Marzilli, president of General Dynamics C4 Systems.
The Navy has deployed two of the four satellites needed for global coverage, with the third expected to leave the Lockheed Martin factory in California the first week of November on its way to Cape Canaveral, Florida, said Iris Bombelyn, the company’s vice president of narrowband communications.
MUOS number three is scheduled to launch sometime in January and the fourth in August, she said in an interview. Lockheed Martin is under contract to produce a fifth on-orbit spare by 2016. The Navy will not consider the MUOS deployment complete until that final spacecraft is on orbit in 2017, she said. But as far as users are concerned, they should be able to connect to the satellites almost anywhere on the planet by the end of calendar year 2015 after on-orbit checkouts are complete.
“When the entire constellation is up, you can go from anyplace in the world to anyplace in the world and talk,” she said.
Some have compared it to a “cell phone tower in the sky,” Bombelyn said. It will have 16 times the capacity of the legacy Ultra High Frequency Follow-On satellites they are replacing.
Users will be able to send and receive pictures, videos and text while talking just as they can with a typical smartphone, she said. “You don’t have to drop off the voice line to look at data,” she said.
The Navy made a prescient move when MUOS was still on the drawing board to go with the then-nascent 3G technology, Bombelyn said.
“In 2004, 3G was cutting edge, it was just a gleam,” she said.
Each of the four satellites cover about two-thirds of the Earth, so the overlap creates seamless coverage, she noted.
They were not required to provide strategic communications during a nuclear attack as is the case with the Air Force’s new Advanced-EHF satellites, she noted. However, that makes them more affordable. The processing is done at four ground stations rather than onboard MUOS, she said. The satellites are referred to as “bent pipes.” In other words, data and voice communications are sent to the spacecraft, where they are retransmitted to a ground station, processed, then sent off again via terrestrial or space links.
Because the processing is done terrestrially, it allows the Navy to more easily and affordably carry out upgrades at the four ground stations. They are located in Virginia, Hawaii, Australia and Sicily. The latter experienced delays when the local population — fearing the health effects of electro-magnetic waves — voiced opposition to the project. That has been worked out and the station in Niscemi, Italy, is expected to be up and running by January, she said.
The knock on satellite programs for decades is that the terminals that connect to the spacecraft — because they are often developed and fielded by different services and program managers — are rarely in synchronization with the spacecraft.
Marzilli said that is not the case for MUOS. It dovetails perfectly with the WIN-T increment 2, and the software-defined PRC-155 HMS Manpack and AN/PRC-154A rifleman radios.
“There was a high sense of urgency knowing that there was a need to blend those two programs of record,” he said.
MUOS did suffer program delays. The arrival of the compatible terminals was more to do with happenstance, executives said.
WIN-T does not require satellites for connectivity, but it makes the system more robust, he said. It is a self-forming, self-healing and self-discovering network, where signals connect through nodes to reach a destination. It gives users longer ranges, and the ability to get signals around solids such as buildings, valleys, mountains or thick foliage, he said.
Troops at the tactical edge with rifleman radios will not directly connect to the satellites, but as long as they can connect to a Manpack, or another larger node in the network, they can reach anywhere in the world, Marzilli said.
The WIN-T system automatically chooses the most direct, secure and economical path between points, so it doesn’t burden transponder capacity on a satellite.
“If you can reach your neighbor via line of sight, it will choose that path,” he said. The satellites will provide more of an “On-Star” emergency backup when signals are stressed.
That’s one of the great advantages of UHF communications and MUOS, Bombelyn said. It can take weak or out-of-synch signals, harvest them and recombine them into a stronger signal. UHF bands suffer less interference from rain, clouds and foliage, “which allows you to provide better support to what we call a stressed user — somebody who is in a lone survivor scenario,” she said.
General Dynamics and Rockwell Collins have teamed up to produce the PRC-155 HMS Manpack. It is in its third low-rate initial production and they are being sent to schoolhouses and other units so soldiers can become familiar with them, Marzilli said.
There are some 20,000 PRC-154 riflemen radios already fielded capable of connecting to the Manpacks.
The Air Force Research Laboratory recently paid for a series of tests to see how well the MUOS enabled terminals performed on an airborne platform. Both General Dynamics and Rockwell Collins brought their terminals to Joint Base Lewis-McChord located near Tacoma, Washington.
Rockwell Collins brought its upgradeable ARC-210 terminal. About 37,000 of the radios are already installed in some 140 different platforms in 80 countries. They can be upgraded to take the MUOS waveform.
General Dynamics brought the HMS Manpack to serve as an airborne radio. While intended for dismounted operations, the terminal works fine when installed in ground or air vehicles, Marzilli noted.
Both were placed on a rack inside a C-17 and flown over the Pacific. They successfully connected to the two MUOS satellites currently aloft — one over the continental United States and the other over the Pacific — as well as an HMS Manpack on the ground. They sent voice, data and aircraft position data to a simulated air operations center at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois while flying over the ocean.
Rockwell Collins is under contract with the Navy to move a MUOS enabled ARC-210 into a product development transition phase.
“We expect them to be rolling off the factory floor in [fiscal year] 17,” said Joseph Blank, advanced networking program manager at Rockwell Collins.
“That was one reason why it was important for us to go and prove out MUOS. Now we can take the ARC-210 radios to the customer and start integrating it in. So when they come off the factory floor in 17, they will be ready to drop right into an aircraft,” Blank said. “We’re starting to look at the customer base now,” he added.
Another knock on terminals have been their high prices.
Blank said the company has been working with the Navy to reduce recurring costs. There should be no bump in the per-unit price when the ARC-210 transitions to the MUOS-enabled version.
Another advantage that isn’t often mentioned will be clarity, Blank said. Satellite communications are notoriously scratchy and hard to understand. “And now you can literally have voice recognition capabilities from the clarity that is in it,” Blank said.
Earlier in 2014, Lockheed Martin and the terminal manufacturers spent their own funds to see how far the MUOS signal would reach into the polar regions.
Lockheed Martin chartered a C-130 to carry out operational tests as close as it could to the North Pole, and brought along representatives of General Dynamics, Rockwell Collins and Harris Corp. It was a 14-hour flight from Barrow, Alaska. The aircraft could only reach as far as 89.5 degrees north, which is some 30 miles short of the North Pole. While there, the test found no degradation in the signals even though the system was never required to function higher than 65 degrees north. The participants believed that if they were able to go the remaining 30 miles, they probably still would have had some kind of signal.
“That is obviously a communications starved territory that is quite important politically,” Marzilli said.
Next, Rockwell Collins’ Blank said, are more demonstrations. The company wants to do more tests with the MUOS airborne terminal to show its capabilities to original equipment manufacturers, who have multiple customers among the services.
“We’re looking forward to getting out and doing the field tests and getting this radio into production,” Blank said.
Bombelyn said the MUOS constellation may not end at the five spacecraft.
“There are provisions for growing the system,” she said. There is a whole set of frequencies in the UHF bandwidth available with the capacity to accommodate four more satellites and an on-orbit spare, which could double the capacity, she said.
Lockheed Martin has canvassed the international user community and there is a lot of interest in funding a sixth MUOS satellite in return for access to the larger system, she said.
Nordic countries, after hearing about the tests near the North Pole, are keenly interested, she added.
“We definitely have pent up user need,” she said. Many allies already have access to the legacy UHF Follow-On system so there isn’t really a reason why it can’t be shared, she said.
The office of the secretary of defense must first rule that the system is exportable, she noted.
“If we can get some kind of hint from [OSD] that that is a consideration, then we definitely have the capability to put together a consortium for the Navy of international partners that would be willing to fund another satellite,” she said.