Air Force, Industry Considering Future of Protected Satcom
Photo: Air Force
The Air Force has long been hesitant to use commercially owned and operated platforms for its most secure satellite networks. But as it begins to consider the shape of its future protected communications architecture and find new ways to serve tactical users, officials and industry leaders see more options for hosted payloads.
“There’s a lot of studying, a lot of effort, a lot of engagement with industry right now to understand those hosting opportunities,” said Col. Timothy McKenzie, chief of the advanced development division for military satellite communications at the Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base.
McKenzie revealed what he called the notional future protected satellite communications operational viewpoint 1 at the 2017 Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association MILCOM conference in Baltimore.
The new architecture would address key resiliency issues within the current system and expand the definition of protected satcom beyond strategic communications, to include the tactical warfighter as a user, he said. It is expected to include several efforts to either procure new satellites or piggyback payloads on commercially owned and operated buses, he added.
The service has also been working with industry on a program called the protected tactical enterprise service program, or PTES, McKenzie said. That is expected to implement a new protected tactical waveform over the Air Force’s existing wideband global satellite — or WGS — constellation to better service the warfighter, McKenzie said.
The center released a draft request for proposals for the PTES program this past December via FedBizOpps. The Air Force is looking for the system to reach initial operating capability around 2023, McKenzie said.
The service also plans to develop a new protected tactical satellite program, which would increase the amount of anti-jam capability provided to tactical users in a contested environment, Mc-Kenzie said. The Air Force is exploring several options for the program besides developing a whole new military-grade satellite, such as hosting a protected tactical waveform payload on a commercially operated system, he added.
As the Air Force ponders these future options, the service expects to continue using advanced extremely high frequency satellites — nuclear-hardened systems with onboard signal processing and crossbanded extremely high frequency and super high frequency communications — into the 2030s, McKenzie said.
Lockheed Martin, the platform’s manufacturer, has delivered four out of six planned AEHF satellites to the Air Force to date. Three systems have been launched since 2010, with AEHF-4 expected to launch by the end of 2018 and AEHF-5 by the third quarter of 2019, according to the service. Northrop Grumman develops the payload.
All AEHF satellites will receive resiliency upgrades over the coming years, McKenzie said. The fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act conference report authorized nearly $57 million to procure the last two systems, and over $145 million in research, development, test and evaluation funds for the program.
But the Air Force must consider what comes after the current platform. A new system called the evolved strategic satellite, or ESS, could come onboard in the early 2030s, McKenzie said. It will utilize extended data rate waveforms — also present on advanced EHF — that provide 10 times more communications capacity and greater channel data rates than the legacy, lower capability Milstar system that AEHF is meant to replace, according to the service.
ESS will also include a new component for more communication capacity around the North Pole, McKenzie added. In the interim, the service is exploring hosting an enhanced polar system payload on a Norwegian satellite, he said. Over $33 million has been authorized in the NDAA for “polar MILSATCOM” research and development, according to the conference report.
The Air Force must also weigh how much tactical capacity it will share with international partners on future systems, McKenzie noted. The United Kingdom, Canada and the Netherlands currently use AEHF networks.
Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., said the Air Force could benefit from including Asia-Pacific allies, such as Japan, in the future protected satcom architecture. “If they will give us a free ride, that helps offset the costs for us, and helps to expand the number of tactical users,” he said.
The current architecture consists of a mix of military-specific Milstar and AEHF satellites, said Rick Lober, vice president and general manager of defense and intelligence systems for Hughes Network Systems.
“On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got things like WGS, which is similar to commercial satellites in terms of the way it was built and operates,” he added. Commercial operators then provide bandwidth to the Air Force as a service, though their systems don’t usually possess the same levels of anti-jamming capabilities as military systems do, he noted.
Harrison said the current architecture is effective “for the things that it’s currently designed to do.” It is resistant to jamming, and should the United States get into a nuclear conflict, it will remain operational.
But it consists of only a few satellites, and those are physically unprotected, he noted. An anti-satellite weapon could take one out and create a major gap in capability and resilience, he added.
Hughes, a global provider of space communication equipment including satellites, terminals and ground systems and bandwidth services, is closely following the protected tactical satellite program, and has participated in several Air Force-led studies on the subject, Lober said. In the interim, the company is exploring anti-jamming solutions that could be applied in the near term, he said.
“Some of the new high throughput satellites use a lot of beams coming down from the satellite to the Earth, and because these beams are isolated from each other, you’ve got to be inside the beam to jam the satellite,” he said. “It makes it a lot harder than it used to be.
“If you can couple that with a radio or a terminal that has anti-jam characteristics, you can come up with near-term solutions that are probably available now rather than wait for a long program development,” he added.
Lober noted that this type of near-term option may not be viable for strategic communications where “you really want a bulletproof solution.”
McKenzie said commercial industries are expected to play “an incredibly large part” in any next-generation protected satcom architecture, but also acknowledged “that’s probably the least defined right now for our tactical architecture.”
Lober said the Air Force has done a good job reaching out to commercial industry to explore future protected satcom options.
“They seem to be reaching out [to industry] in a bigger way than I’ve seen in the last 20 years,” he told National Defense.
For the Air Force to use hosted payloads would be “a significant step forward,” Harrison said. Congress could be willing to move in that direction, and the warfighters themselves are likely agnostic, he added. “They just want more capabilities faster.”
The Air Force is beginning to consider how it will secure its future communications networks at a time when its space assets are becoming more threatened by adversaries.
U.S. Strategic Command commander Gen. John Hyten recently advocated for the service to move toward developing more resilient satellite architectures.
“I don’t want to buy any more fragile, undefendable satellites,” he said at the 2017 Halifax International Security Forum in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “We’re going to go down a different path [and] we have to go down that path quickly.”
He noted that adversaries are “moving quickly into the weapons domain,” honing jamming systems and developing anti-satellite capabilities.
“We have a huge capacity in space right now that pretty much overwhelms anybody, but when the adversary is building up significant capabilities that can threaten that, I have to figure out how to respond,” he added.
The number of counter-space capabilities has proliferated in recent years, among both state actors including Russia and China and non-state actors such as terrorist groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, Harrison noted. “All of these are proliferating because our conventional adversaries see it’s a weak spot.”
Lober said the need for resiliency may be prompting the Air Force to look at hosted payloads more seriously.
“I think they’re becoming more open to say, ‘Maybe if I put a couple of hosted payloads on a variety of systems, it’s going to be a much more resilient system than building these huge billion-dollar satellites that are just kind of large targets up there,’” he said.
Capacity is also a concern moving forward, Lober noted. “If the commercial side is any indication, our customers are just demanding more and more [and] higher and higher speeds. … I think you’re going to see the same on the military side.”
As the Air Force explores what a future protected satcom network could look like, it must consider the present budget realities, Harrison said.
Service officials have clearly defined the top three funding priorities in the current fiscal environment: the F-35 joint strike fighter, the KC-46 tanker and the B-21 bomber, he noted. Next on the procurement list is typically the new T-X end-to-end trainer system, the ground-based strategic deterrent and the long-range standoff cruise missile, he added.
“We fall further and further behind, our protected communications become more and more vulnerable, and it puts all of our forces at risk,” he said.
Funding for secure communications has had “a checkered history,” Harrison noted. In 2009, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates canceled the $26 billion transformational satellite communications system meant to provide more secure global communications for the U.S. military, intelligence community and NASA. At the time, he cited high cost, technological risk and development delays as reasons to snuff the program.
“They’re just now starting this program to develop a next-generation protected satcom satellite,” Harrison said. “It took eight years to restart a program, to do something that still needs to be done.”
Marco Caceres, senior space analyst at the Teal Group, an aerospace and defense market analysis firm, noted that satellite technologies move very quickly, while the funding process is notoriously slow and has a tendency to extend programs in order to avoid cancellation. By the time the systems are ready to launch, new technologies have already been developed, but it’s too late to incorporate them into the satellite, he said.
It’s likely the Air Force will continue to stretch out the lifetimes of the systems currently in orbit as long as possible “while they figure out what they always try to figure out, [which is] what technology is sufficient for the next 10, 20 years, even if it’s not the latest and greatest,” he added.
Though the Air Force must begin to seriously tackle this problem, there is still time to develop future solutions as the final AEHF satellites come online, Caceres said.
“I don’t think there is this sense of desperation that, my gosh, these satellites are going to stop working,” he said. “But the military is always looking ahead, and they’re realizing they’re not seeing any new program that’s in place, that’s defined and that’s going to get a huge chunk of money from Congress.”
That realization may swing the pendulum toward more commercial options, he noted.
”The military space budget isn’t growing by leaps and bounds, so there’s probably that unanswered question of where is that money going to come from for a next-generation constellation, and nobody knows,” he added.