Trouble Integrating Waveform Leaves New MUOS Satellites With Little to Do

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

The U.S. military’s long-standing problem of aligning the deployment of spacecraft with the development of their Earth-bound terminals and ground stations is plaguing the Navy’s powerful new communications satellite system.  

The service is having difficulties delivering a waveform known as wideband code division multiple access, which is intended to work with the Mobile User Objective System. MUOS is a constellation of spacecraft intended to provide the military with narrowband tactical communications with secure voice, video and data transfer. They have been called “cell towers in space” for their ability to deliver the kinds of communications consumers expect on Earth.

Three of a planned five-satellite fleet are in orbit, but Cristina T. Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee in April that 90 percent of the spacecrafts’ capacity is going unused as problems with the waveform are being worked out.

“As a result, the Army’s plans to field its MUOS-compatible radios have now slipped from 2014 to 2016, roughly four years since the first MUOS satellite launched,” she said.

The MUOS spacecraft have a payload that allows them to communicate with radios compatible with the legacy UHF-Follow-On satellites, which accounts for the 10 percent of capacity being used.

The General Dynamics-designed waveform is critical to unlocking MUOS’ advanced communication capabilities for ground soldiers using radios, such as the joint tactical radio system (JTRS) handheld, manpack and small form fit (HMS) terminals.

“Launching MUOS satellites is important to sustain legacy UHF communications, but use of over 90 percent of MUOS’ planned capability is dependent on resolving issues related to integrating the MUOS waveform, HMS terminals and ground systems,” an earlier March GAO report said.

The GAO has been concerned about integration since 2007, the report said. MUOS program officials continue to work on resolving the issue, but operational testing has been pushed back by 18 months to December 2015. This will cause a delay in the fielding of MUOS-capable radios, which the Army is procuring, the report said.

The underlying problem, government watchdogs such as the GAO have noted, is that the satellites and terminal programs are separate, often run by different services, with different program managers and funding schedules. The Air Force and Navy launch the spacecraft before problems with terminals are sorted out.

Once the end-to-end system is operational, MUOS will be a powerful new tool.

Lockheed Martin — the prime contractor of the satellites and system integrator  — has previously said that the new waveform will provide a 16-fold increase in transmission throughput over the legacy UHF satellite system. The company declined to comment for this article.

So far, three satellites have been launched. The first two are currently providing the legacy UHF communications to war fighters. In January, the Navy launched the third of five satellites into orbit after a four-month delay. Full capability is slated for 2017, but some experts doubt whether that is feasible.

There is a strong possibility that the Navy will not be able to reach that goal, said Bill Ostrove, a space systems analyst at Forecast International, a Newtown, Connecticut-based marketing and consulting firm. However, he noted that delays are to be expected when dealing with developmental technology.

“I think it’s easy to look at the delays and the problems and sort of blame the contractor, but this is very developmental technology,” he said. “You almost sort of have to expect there to be some delays and some cost overruns.”

MUOS is one of the top satellite programs in the military and issues such as the advanced waveform will be resolved eventually, he said.

“The technical expertise is there and the money is there,” he said. “They will figure it out. It might just take a little bit longer than they would like.”

As for poorly scheduled satellites and terminal programs such as MUOS and its waveform, GAO’s Chaplain said there is a lack of leadership in the Defense Department willing to solve the underlying problems.

“We consistently find ground systems and user equipment programs are plagued by requirements instability, underestimation of technical complexity, and poor contractor oversight,” she said.  Those problems, and the misalignment of spacecraft and terminal programs, will continue to create challenges for the military, she said.

Fixing the integration problem will be critical as the United States faces new and enduring threats around the world, Ostrove said.

The military has said that it plans to pivot to the Asia-Pacific region where troops and sailors may operate far from a base. Having technology like MUOS will be key to staying connected, he said. 

Additionally, MUOS-enabled communications will be useful in the Middle East, he said.

“We’re operating unmanned aerial vehicles and Special Forces [there] and we don’t always have access to terrestrial infrastructure,” he said. Troops “need the satellites to provide those really vital communication links.”

With warfare becoming more complex in the future, a robust communication infrastructure will be required. “As more and more data is being used on the battlefield to fight modern wars and to fight modern battles, you need to have a higher capacity satellite to handle that,” Ostrove said.

Micah Walter-Range, director of research and analysis at the Space Foundation, said he is confident that Lockheed and General Dynamics will be able to resolve the waveform issue with time. “While there have been problems and certainly have been delays, the companies are actually in a reasonably good place for addressing them,” he said.

He pointed to the opening of Lockheed Martin’s test radio access facility in Sunnyvale, California, as one sign that Lockheed is “taking sustainable steps to address” the issues. The facility cost $6.5 million and is 3,400 square feet.

In a December company press release, Glenn Ladue, MUOS test radio access facility manager said, “Lockheed Martin’s goal with the TRAF is to help terminal developers and application integrators get MUOS’ capabilities deployed to the war fighter as quickly as possible.”

Vendors can visit the facility to develop new software, hardware and applications.

In February, General Dynamics’ MUOS radio test laboratory in Scottsdale, Arizona, began offering “over-the-air” radio testing for companies seeking to test their products over the network.

Walter-Range noted that while the MUOS program has been criticized for delays, they are becoming shorter in duration.

The first MUOS satellite launched 26 months past its intended target date. The last launch, in January, was held up by four months.

“The overall impression that I got was that things are improving,” he said.

However, issues surrounding the advanced waveform are concerning, he said.

“In terms of the return on the investment, delays and certainly when you have a space segment operational but the ground segment not fully operational, you’re not getting full value from the system,” he said.

Congress and the Defense Department are likely upset about that, he noted.

When the advanced waveform is integrated, however, it will give troops unprecedented communication capabilities, said Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Hughes, program executive officer of Army command control communications-tactical.

“This capability will allow us to operate the tactical network in an environment we never could before,” he said during a panel discussion at the AFCEA West conference in February. “We’re taking the network down to the individual soldier in the Army.”

The moderator, retired Rear Adm. James H. Rodman, Jr., former chief engineer at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, noted that just as everyday citizens are connected to their mobile devices, so are service members.

 “Smartphones, tablet computers, wireless hotspots. We’re always on, we’re always connected and we’re immersed in the data of our modern lives. So are our war fighters,” he said. MUOS gives soldiers a “tremendous” capability, particularly as demand for communications — whether it is voice, video or data — increases, he said.

“This system will allow us to do very small unit deployments, have units connected back into the network in ways we never could do before from the time we deploy,” Hughes said.

Recalling the Korean War, Hughes noted that at the time, soldiers could not even communicate between nearby hills. “If I have a company on this side and a company on this side, I’m not talking between the two,” he said.

With MUOS, communication is seamless, he said. That will change doctrine eventually, and alter the way soldiers need to be deployed.

The communication landscape has changed dramatically in less than a decade, said Rear Adm. Christian “Boris” Becker, program executive officer of command, control, communications, computers and intelligence and space systems.

“If you look at what was the state of the norm even five years ago, certainly 10 years ago, for how people communicated, looking forward you wouldn’t imagine that’s what we are doing today,” he said.

During demonstrations with MUOS and Naval Special Warfare operators, users said the system provided them with exceptional clarity compared to legacy systems, Becker said.

“Before they would have to repeat [messages] more than once or twice or three times,” he said. Now “they just had to say it once over the air and had good copy. To them that meant an awful lot.”

The system will also help the United States better communicate with its coalition partners, he said.

“Understanding how we use narrowband satcom today to support those partnerships will certainly inform how we as a nation reach out to and engage with our coalition partners and allies to apply this capability,” he said. “That’s something that is under consideration.”

MUOS won’t solve all of the military’s communication needs, but it fulfills a number of requirements, Becker said. The system most likely will not replace commercial satellite services, he noted. About 80 percent of military satellite communications still go through commercial providers.

“I don’t know that MUOS will replace those services … because at some point there are capabilities that are supported by those systems that will still be necessary,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that there is a particular point where other capabilities will be replaced, but rather we are adding to the capability mix that we have for the particular needs that we have.”

Walter-Range noted that when looking solely at communication throughput, commercial satellites are the appropriate choice. However, those systems are not as secure as a military-grade satellites.

“Some of the new commercial systems have substantially higher throughput than any of the government developed systems,” he said. “But the military has very specific needs, both in terms of security and resilience, and this system is designed to meet those designs and to do so much better than the legacy systems.”

Topics: C4ISR, Tactical Communications, Space

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