Filling the SATCOM gap

Communications demands, new threats in space and delays in delivery of systems are forcing the Defense Department to realign priorities

Military satellite communications is in a state of flux as the Defense Department struggles to fund upgrades to its Cold War era fleet of birds.

The first of DOD’s Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) constellation of satellites was launched in October, the initial step toward a significant upgrade of the Defense Satellite Communications Systems (DSCS) III.

However, the launch coincided with the revelation of major delays to other systems. The most significant was to the Transformational Satellite Communications Systems (TSAT) program, which is intended to provide wideband and protected communications.

Because the first launch of TSAT satellites is now unlikely before 2016, the military will be looking to fill gaps in bandwidth demand. That opens the possibility of greater use of commercial satcom services to fill other program shortfalls. The 2001 terrorist attacks and the Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom wars sparked a surge in satcom demand.

Meanwhile, DOD is also trying to realign priorities to put a focus on Space Situational Awareness (SSA), a program that became more urgent after China shot down a weather satellite in January 2007. President Bush issued a classified memo in July 2007 that requires government departments to improve the nation’s SSA capabilities.

Lt. Gen. William Shelton, commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space, recently called improved SSA the No. 1 operational need and the foundation for all space operations.

Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Sorenson, the Army’s chief information officer, highlighted the need for satcom upgrades. In a presentation last year, he noted that the total bandwidth used by the force of 542,000 deployed for Desert Storm in 1991 topped out at 99 megabits/sec. During the Iraqi Freedom campaign, from 2003 to 2004, the 123,000- member force required more than 3.6 gigabits/sec.

With bandwidth demand sure to increase given the strategic and tactical requirements for real-time, networked battlefield images and video to improve decision-making and with the greater use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) equipped with multiple sensors, the upgrades are seen as vital to future warfighting capabilities.

“A single WGS satellite has greater capacity than the entire legacy DSCS III constellation,” Gary Payton, Air Force deputy undersecretary for space programs, told the House Armed Services Committee in March.

DOD’s improved satcom capacity will be primarily delivered through three programs.

WGS will be comprised of five satellites that replace DSCS II and provide wideband communications through the X and Ka bands. The Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) and, eventually, TSAT satellites will replace the Milstar fleet and provide protected communications.

The Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) will be comprised of a fleet of as many as six satellites that will provide ultra-high-frequency narrowband communications, replacing the UHF Follow- On (UFO) system.

The first of the AEHF satellites is due to launch this year, and when the system becomes operational, it will complete a worldwide MDR ring. That ring will boost data rates for these low-detection/anti-jam communications from a few kilobits/sec to 1 megabit/sec.

DOD is planning for a total of four AEHF satellites to be launched by 2010, and Congress added an extra $125 million for the program in the fiscal 2008 Defense Authorization bill.

MUOS, managed by the Navy, is designed to provide communications on the move (COTM) as fast as 64 kilobits/sec for things such as handheld terminals, aircraft, missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles and remote sensors. It will allow four times as many such links as the older UFO system, nearly 2,000, and will boost total throughput to 39.2 megabits/sec, compared with 2 megabits/sec for UFO.

This is “the common denominator for command and control, providing the capability to communicate from tactical to theater levels and between defense and nondefense agencies,” said Rear Adm. Kenneth Deutsch, director of warfare integration at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.

MUOS will allow for a more comprehensive and coordinated approach to regional engagement, providing the capability to synchronize efforts with other services, agencies and allied nations, he recently told a panel of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

However, each of these programs has experienced delays, which will affect both current and future bandwidth requirements. WGS satellites were due to start launching in 2004, those for AEHF in 2005 and those for MUOS in 2007. MUOS will now start replacing the UFO fleet in 2010.


The hardest hit of all of these might be TSAT. It is a major element of a planned secure, high-capacity global communications network for use by DOD, intelligence agencies and NASA that will use 10 gigabit/sec to 40 gigabit/sec laser links. It has been under constant criticism almost from its inception.

In 2004, the Government Accountability Office recommended that TSAT be delayed until its critical technologies were more mature and it was easier to see how they could be integrated. GAO repeated its criticism a couple of years later. Last year, Congress chopped $150 million from TSAT’s fiscal 2008 funding.

The Air Force, perhaps sensing the inevitable, is asking for only $843 million for the program in fiscal 2009, and is planning to spend some $6.6 billion during the next five years, or about $4 billion less than originally expected. Design and development schedules have also been pushed back.

The military space community’s challenge is dealing with technology that is getting so expensive that it’s becoming unaffordable, said Ed Anderson, a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton and a former deputy commander of the U.S. Space Command.

“Cost is what’s driving these delays,” he said. “The TSAT delay in particular is going to hurt because the Army is looking at that at as an important part of the Future Combat System.”

The military can augment the shortfall with commercial capabilities, and that’s not bad, he said. But some people are hesitant to do that because they don’t know if they can depend on it always being there when they need it.

However, he said, there has to be some way to provide the capability because warfighters have come to depend on satellite communications and the persistent awareness it provides on the ground. The system enables 5,000 soldiers to control an area that previously would have taken 50,000 to cover, he said.

DOD’s demand for fixed satellite commercial satcom grew 31 percent a year from fiscal 2000 to fiscal 2006, according to the Defense Information Systems Agency, which buys commercial satcom capacity for the military.

That frantic growth slowed during the past couple of years but still was around 12 percent. Projections for future growth are uncertain at best, said Joe Mansir, deputy program manager of satellite communications at DISA’s Program Executive Office.

“While DOD expects continuing demand” for commercial services, he said, “factors such as the availability of WGS satellites, the deployed Global War On Terrorism force structure levels, and fiscal pressures clearly impact future demand, making precise quantification challenging.”

In general, commercial satcom can meet all of DOD’s requirements other than for military- specific needs such as jamresistant communications, open ocean coverage at all commercial frequencies for things such as spot-beam antennas, and for extremely high-throughput requirements to small, disadvantaged terminals such as those on UAVs, he said.

Others, however, see a continuing increase in commercial satcom as inevitable. Even if the military were to deploy all of the satellite assets it has budgeted for, said Jose del Rosario, a senior analyst at Northern Sky Research, demand probably would still go up.

“Soldiers need communications for intelligence gathering and to move that data up to headquarters, then there’s the need for remote sensing, for opening up new bases and so on,” he said. “There’s no other way for the military to meet this demand.”

The military would prefer to use its proprietary assets but can’t afford it, he said. Also, commercial services are much cheaper to pull together; the cost of putting a military satellite in orbit is around three times that of a commercial satellite.

Commercial satcom is already a big workhorse for the military across the L, C and the Ku bands, said Kay Sears, senior vice president of sales, marketing and business development at Intelsat. And DOD is grappling with what should be the mix of commercial and military satellite services.

Commercial providers have proven that they can be reliable providers of satcom to the military, she said, and the bottom line is that the industry has performed extremely well for the military at a time when it didn’t have its own capacity.

Now, DOD wants to know what level of security commercial companies can achieve and whether it should put a lot of day-today communications through commercial systems and accommodate surges in demand via its own systems, she said. There are also some areas for which Intelsat and other companies would be prepared to optimize their systems.

“But the kind of forecasts [of demand] we get from the military are not what we can take to an investment community,” Sears said. “We are willing to take risks, but we want to be able to measure that.”

The key is the willingness of the military to engage with the commercial satellite industry so that both sides can understand each other’s needs, said Tip Osterthaler, chief executive officer of Americom Government Services and a retired Air Force brigadier general.

“The perception of government is that they can only buy on the [commercial] spot market because they don’t have enough demand for commercial companies to put satellites up for them, and that’s not true,” he said. “They also believe that we have to pre-sell capacity before we put satellites up, and that’s also not true.”

There’s also the possibility of commercial companies launching hybrid satellites that carry two different kinds of payloads, one of which would be military-specific. But that requires an understanding of the risks involved, which requires a better understanding of government needs and commitment, “But we’ve not seen that effort yet,” Osterthaler said.

About 80 percent of military communications today is carried on commercial systems, he said. At the same time, military traffic accounts for only 20 percent of the commercial industry’s business. So the industry can’t fundamentally reorient its business practices to favor the military.


Although it has not replaced the urgency of any of these satcom programs and its need has been noted for several years, SSA was thrust to the fore during 2007 following China’s anti-satellite test in January 2007.

SSA is a ground- and space-based system that tracks and analyses the orbits of objects in space — weapons, satellites or debris — to determine what danger they pose to U.S. military space assets. It also determines the status of the military’s own forces and what the effect of the space environment has on operations.

One of the lessons learned from China’s test is there’s a tremendous amount of SSA data available in many disparate systems and security channels, Shelton said at a recent Senate hearing. But “we clearly need improved processing and analytic systems that continually compile and automatically fuse SSA information in real-time to keep us abreast of space events,” he said.

Other needed improvements include networked sensors and information systems to share information and allow future SSA sensors to be plug and play, he said.

Congress responded by boosting fiscal 2008 appropriations for SSA and space control to about $300 million. That is almost certain to increase in fiscal 2009, with the Air Force asking for over $421 million for those programs, with SSA slated to get around $240 million of that.

And of that, about half will go for the Space Based Space Surveillance (SBSS) Block 10 satellite, which is slated to replace the Space-Based Visible sensor. The SBV, part of an instrument pack age on the Midcourse Space Experiment craft, was designed to prove above-the-horizon surveillance capabilities using broadband detectors to automatically detect space objects. But that craft is well past its shelf life.

SBSS is now slated to launch in 2009. After the Block 10 pathfinder satellite is completed and launched, the plans are for a constellation of four, more advanced SBSS Block 20 satellites.

Another $45 million of those SSA funds are intended for upgrades to the Space Fence, the oldest of the United States’ space tracking systems. It’s comprised of a series of radar systems in the southern United States stretched along the 33rd parallel that track objects in both low Earth orbit and medium Earth orbit.

The Space Fence can track objects as small as about 30 centimeters in diameter. Upgrades using the fiscal 2009 funds will use higher frequencies to enable it to detect and track much smaller objects.

The other major element of the SSA is the Rapid Attack Identification Detection and Reporting System (RAIDRS). This system includes automated detection sensors, information processors and a reporting architecture and is meant to detect, identify, classify and report any event that threatens the operation of military space assets.

A total of $57.8 million in fiscal 2009 is intended to fund the development and deployment of the first Block 10 spiral of that program, in addition to the initial concept definition and development of the follow-on Block 20 system.

That’s aimed at collecting data from open and classified sources that might help to predict attacks such as the one China launched against its own weather satellite, only this time targeting U.S. assets.

RAIDRS Block 10 is expected to be operational sometime in 2011. Finally, the Integrated Space Situation Awareness program would get $45 million from the SSA budget, up from $26 million the previous year. That program’s goal is to produce a network-centric environment that will provide automated, real-time correlation of the data collected from all SSA components and translate that into actionable information for commanders.

With the Chinese anti-satellite test as a catalyst, DOD said it added funds for fiscal 2009 to accelerate the evolution of the Space Defense Operations Center into a net-centric enterprise, which is its current priority.

For many of these plans, however, the devil is in the details, according to the Center for Defense Information. In an analysis of the fiscal 2009 Air Force space budget, the center pointed out that Air Force officials said the initial operating capability for the planned upgrade of the Space Fence is again being pushed back, to 2015. It had also earlier delayed a planned upgrade to an S-band radar system capable of detecting small objects.

Meanwhile, Air Force officials said they would conduct an architecture analysis of SSA sensors to be used to inform their fiscal 2010 budget process.

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