NEWS FROM SPACE SYMPOSIUM: Military Ready to Tackle Age-Old Satellite Terminal Synchronization Problem

By Stew Magnuson
Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, takes questions at the Space Symposium.

Photo: Defense Dept.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — With the creation of a unified space command and a possible new military branch known as the space force, there may be solutions to the age-old problem of making sure satellite terminals are functioning as soon as their corresponding satellites are launched, military leaders said during the Space Symposium this week.

“Gosh, I hope so,” said Air Force Gen. John Hyten, Strategic Command commander, when asked if all the reforms and consolidation of agencies might mean better coordination between the builders of the satellites and the services that must field the terminals that connect to them. “This has been a significant challenge for basically my entire adult life.”

He succinctly summed up the conundrum: “We have not done a good job in the lining up of the terminal programs with the satellite programs. We end up with satellites on orbit and then we chase the satellites with ground systems.”

The lack of coordination means satellites are placed in orbit that can only connect to legacy systems and aren’t taking advantage of the new technology. Every year that passes is a waste since satellites have finite lives in the harsh conditions of space. Meanwhile, satellite programs are often delayed, creating confusing as to when a terminal must be in place.

“Rule No. 1 of what you're going to buy is, ‘Don't buy it until it's time to buy it.’ Now, you don't want to buy a terminal if the satellite is not going to be ready,” Hyten said. There is logic involved for the Army, Navy and Air Force as they seek to field satellite terminals, he added.

There have been cases where the terminals are ready, but the satellite is not. And experts say that putting a spacecraft in storage waiting for the terminal programs to catch up is also costly and potentially harmful to the satellite, so putting them in “cold storage” is not a solution.

An ongoing example is the GPS III system, which according to recent testimony by Government Accountability Office Director of Contracting and National Security Acquisitions Cristina T. Chaplain, has a serious synchronization issue. The user equipment that will connect to the systems’ new improved M-code has lagged behind in development “for more than a decade," she said.

The M-Code doesn’t quite work yet, and the first of the GPS III satellites was launched in December. The computer chips will be required in about 700 weapon systems, Chaplain testified April 3 before the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces.

“We found that multiple entities were maturing their own receiver cards. We recommend that DoD assign responsibility to a single organization to collect test data, lessons learned, and design solutions so that common design solutions are employed and DoD could avoid duplication of efforts,” she said.

Hyten, who was nominated to be the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said having one entity in charge is a possible solution. Air Force Gen. John “Jay” Raymond was nominated as the new unified Space Command commander, and he may be a solution, Hyten noted.

“Raymond is now the sole authority for purchasing [satellite communications]. The key now is to work with the other services and make sure we have a plan to integrate the network so we don't end up with these dozens, even hundreds of different terminal types that we're working with that really drive enormous costs and hurt our efficiency on the battlefield," he said.

That doesn’t necessarily mean putting one person in charge of the end-to-end satellite system, from the spacecraft to the ground terminals, Hyten said.

“You need the Army and the Navy defining what their soldiers and sailors are going to have," he said. "You need the Air Force defining what their pilots are going to need. You need that voice. So you just can't say, ‘Over to you space command or over to you space force.'”

“This will be discussed as we go forward in the future,” he added.

The Air Force recently conducted a 90-day review of its space systems, and Secretary Heather Wilson said one of its conclusions was the need for low-cost multi-band terminals.


Topics: Space, Space Operations

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