U.S. Forces Prepare for a ‘Day Without Space’

By Stew Magnuson
A potential nightmare for combatant commanders is a “day without space.”

In this scenario, a peer or near-peer competitor severely limits U.S. forces’ access to military communication and navigation spacecraft through jamming or something more destructive, such as anti-satellite weapons.

“Space is no longer a sanctuary. It is a contested environment. We have known that for a while, especially with peer competitors,” David Madden, director of the military satellite communications systems directorate at the Air Force Space and Missile Center, said at the Milcom conference in San Diego.

Current doctrine calls for operations to continue in anti-access, area-denied confrontations, he noted.

The services are already training for that day.

Lt. Gen. John A. Toolan Jr., commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., said operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Marines were deployed in fixed sites, made them “addicted to big-pipe, space-based systems” to deliver the bandwidth necessary to communicate.

“We developed an overdependence on high-bandwidth communication systems and the contractors required to run them,” he said.

There is now a mandate that Marines must conduct parts of their large-scale training exercises with degraded communications and GPS capabilities to simulate an adversary attacking space-based systems, he said.

That means they must operate with line-of-sight, high frequency, terrestrial radios, with retransmission sites to keep expeditionary units connected, he said.

Meanwhile, the four services are in the beginning stages of developing a concept called the joint area layered network, an Earth-based system that could provide crucial communication links when milsatcoms are degraded, or lost. The Navy is also moving out with its next-generation battle force tactical network-enhanced, which may also serve as an ad hoc communication system. 

At the core of these concepts are meshed networks, where each radio, or vehicle, serves as a node. The Army is developing on a smaller scale the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) system, where every radio — whether it is carried in a backpack or is vehicle-mounted — serves as a repeater. A soldier may be cut off from the rest of the force, but if he has line-of-sight communications with at least one other radio, and that second node can connect to others, he can join the network.

The Army sees WIN-T being used in difficult environments such as mountain valleys or urban areas where line-of-sight communications are difficult.

The same principle applies to the Navy’s battle force tactical network-enhanced, but instead of a soldier in a Humvee, each ship serves as a node, said Robert Townsend, account manager of fixed site communications programs at Rockwell Collins.

The company’s Subnet Node Controller-2050 system provides high-frequency communications using a high-speed modem to automatically set up ad hoc networks between ships at sea.

The curvature of the Earth, which makes line of sight communications difficult between far-flung ships, has made the Navy dependent on satellite communications.

“The day the Chinese proved their ability to shoot down a satellite in space, this became very relevant,” said Townsend, referring to the 2007 incident, when China destroyed one of its defunct satellites with a missile.

That, and the prevalence of jamming in the Middle East, has made meshed networks all the more important, he said.

“As long as you can hear and transmit back to me, you can join,” he said. The next-generation network will have significantly larger throughput at 1.9 megabytes per second compared to 600 kilobytes per second currently being employed.

That will allow for full-motion video, and other applications, Townsend said. There will be four nodes on each of the Navy’s 256 ships, he added.

The primary mission is for vessels to talk to one another while on the move from one end of the fleet to the other, and to therefore reduce the need for satellite bandwidth on a daily basis.
The secondary goal is the “day without space” scenario, he said.

“It also can be that back-up system should they lose their satcom reach back,” he added.
The joint aerial layer network (JALN) similarly is not intended to replace satellite communications, but to supplement it on normal days, said David Cooper, senior technical director at BAE Systems.

There is no program of record so far, and few points of contact within the Defense Department, he said. “From an industry perspective, it has been a little bit confusing. It is really hard to point to programs.”

Nevertheless, an initial capabilities document went through the joint requirements oversight council process in 2009. And an analysis of alternatives study in 2011 produced two waveforms that could be employed. A council of colonels has formed working groups, which are meeting regularly to hash out the concept. Some preliminary risk reduction experiments are being carried out by the individual services, Cooper said.

“Because there is no one JALN program per se, it is hard to really identify where investments should be made and why,” Cooper said.

The primary goals are to increase communication access to the joint forces, and to “extend and augment” existing networks. Because it needs to function in contested and anti-access environments, it is also seen as a surrogate satellite system, with platforms such as unmanned aerial vehicles or other airborne platforms providing the nodes instead of spacecraft, he said.

Another requirement will be the ability to add any hardware needed to existing platforms without requiring costly integration, he said. That may mean phased array antennas that don’t leave a large footprint on aircraft. These are costly, he pointed out.

“Affordable phased array antennas are probably the tail that wags the dog in this whole system approach,” Cooper added.

Since it needs to function in a “day without space” scenario, the system needs to work without access to GPS satellites. Antennas will need to know where to point in order to connect with other nodes

Cooper said JALN might be a good opportunity to apply the emerging laser communication technologies, which uses light instead of radio spectrum to transmit 1s and 0s. The laser communications field has advanced rapidly and the hardware has shrunk in the past few years, he noted.

Joseph Carriere, former acquisition executive for milsatcom terminals at the Space and Missile Center, said the JALN concept could basically duplicate a low-Earth orbiting satellite communication system.

“Frankly, it’s a good move. If our networks are going to be denied in a particular area, create ad hoc ones,” he said in an interview. “The more nodes in the network you have, the more robust network you have,” he added.

Industry is heavily involved in the proposal, and is pushing for the Defense Department to create a program of record, he said.

There are politics involved as some in industry and the military want to protect space programs. Since the primary goal is to use the system on days when there are no confrontations with a peer competitor, the ad hoc network can be a threat to established programs and vendors, he suggested.

“It’s a good concept. We’ll see how it executes and unfolds. Sequestration is, I’m sure, not exactly helping it,” Carriere said, referring to the Defense Department’s budget woes.
Todd Harrison, a fellow specializing in defense budget studies at the Center of Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said if the United States and its military are truly committed to a strategy of assured access in the face of advanced threats, “then the department is going to have to adapt milsatcom systems to operate in a more contested environment.”

Tim Frei, vice president of communications systems at Northrop Grumman’s space systems division, said, “Any kind of a threat, whether it is a physical attack, cyber-attack, electronic attack, can be brought to bear to negate a very expensive system at a very low cost for the adversary.”

Jammers are relatively inexpensive, guided munitions can take out ground terminal gateways, and malware consisting of 160 lines of code hidden among millions could bring satellite systems down, he said.

“We as an industry are really struggling on how to define [resilience], how to invest to improve it, and to develop systems that can accommodate resilience,” he added.

Harrison said: “We can’t protect all systems from all the threats.”

Not every war fighter will be able to expect unlimited communications access, he said. “We simply won’t be able to afford it. Some won’t get the bandwidth that they want. But hopefully they can get the bandwidth that they need,” Harrison said.

Madden said, “You will go to these types of meetings or you will read in the press that we can’t rely on space anymore, so we’re going to do nothing but aerial layers, or we’re going to go to nothing but terrestrial layers.

“Every one of those has certain vulnerabilities, and I really do believe that it’s the combination of those assets, working together, that is going to get us through this and be able to operate,” he added.

Topics: Defense Department, Space

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