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Analyzing satellite alternatives for increasing mission assurance

In my last post on the GovSat Report, I covered the topics and trends  discussed by military satellite experts at the Defense One-sponsored Space and Satellite Communications Morning Briefing. The event brought together a veritable, “who’s who,” of defense satellite decision makers to discuss the current mission assurance challenges facing our satellite infrastructure, and the future opportunities that lay ahead for both government space experts and private industry.

Ultimately, the largest trend that was discussed at the event was the need for the government and military’s space infrastructure to change in the face of a drastically more congested and contested domain. This topic  was well-illustrated by Dr. Brian Weeden, a panelist and Technical Advisor at the Secure World Foundation, when he said:

“There’s…a growing use of space for military and national security purposes by the US and other countries. And all of these things together generate challenges – physical congestion, greater frequency congestion, and also the potential for space to be part of future conflicts. That’s a huge set of challenges – and also opportunities – that the military is trying to deal with.”

Space is becoming increasingly incorporated in conflict planning and military exercises. CNN recently highlighted this new battleground in their special “War in Space: The Next Battlefield” which premiered last month. The domain is being relied on more heavily for the delivery of actionable intelligence and mission-critical capabilities and communications in theater. It’s also becoming a capability that the military is looking to better share and integrate with both international partners and the intelligence community.

These necessary changes were extoled by Mr. Winston Beauchamp, the Director of the Principal Department of Defense Space Advisor Staff and Deputy Under Secretary (Space) of the U.S. Air Force, when he said:

“Just look at all of the changes that we’ve made just in the last year. We’ve changed the way we exercise. In July at the Red Flag exercise, the Air Expeditionary Commander – someone that has always been an air operator – was Col. Deanna Burke, the Commander of the 50th Space Wing. We changed the way the relationship between air and space operates. We changed how we collaborate with our international partners…We’ve changed the way we present space forces to the combatant commanders by building a space mission force that understands what it takes to operate through a contested environment. We changed our Op centers and are well on the road to modernizing our battle management command and control capability. And we’ve changed the way we integrate with our intelligence community partners – much closer collaboration than ever – because – when you’re in a contested environment – you have to understand what your partners are doing in response to a threat…”

But these changes aren’t the only result of the shifting space domain.

"[AoA’s] typically take around 18 months or so. But this one is going to be complex because we've got commercial partners in the planning and conduct of the AoA, as well as international partners that are participating as well.” - Robert Tarleton, Jr, the Director of the MILSATCOM Systems Directorate, Space and Missile Systems Center, Air Force Space Command.

[AoA’s] typically take around 18 months or so. But this one is going to be complex because we’ve got commercial partners in the planning and conduct of the AoA, as well as international partners that are participating as well.” – Robert Tarleton, Jr, the Director of the MILSATCOM Systems Directorate, Space and Missile Systems Center, Air Force Space Command, discussing the status of the military wideband AoA, which will look to improve the network’s mission assurance.

Looking ahead and analyzing the best path forward

A more congested and contested domain has led the military to look forward to the future of their space and satellite infrastructure for 2030 and beyond. As we discussed in our previous post, this is beginning with an Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) for military wideband satellite, which will analyze all possible ways in which the military can build a next-generation space and satellite network that will deliver the mission assurance that the military needs in space today, and into the future.

What is the current status of the military wideband AoA? It’s in it’s infancy.

The AoA is, unfortunately, very complex and intricate, with many disparate organizations and parties involved in its development. Instead of being done entirely with input from the DoD and Air Force, this AoA is being drafted with input from international partners and private industry – including the COMSATCOM providers whose networks will undoubtedly become more relied on to carry military communications and capabilities during conflicts.

This more complex AoA has taken significantly more time to coordinate and start than many outside of the government had anticipated. As of yet, the completion date remains “TBD.”

According to Robert Tarleton, Jr, the Director of the MILSATCOM Systems Directorate, Space and Missile Systems Center, Air Force Space Command, “It’ll be done when we’ve answered all of the questions that we have to address. [AoA’s] typically take around 18 months or so. But this one is going to be complex because we’ve got commercial partners in the planning and conduct of the AoA, as well as international partners that are participating as well.”

However, Mr. Tarleton did insinuate that COMSATCOM could be playing a larger role in military SATCOM needs in the future when he said, “…purpose built satellite, commercial systems – that’s hard to figure out right now. There’s going to be some mix, there’s no doubt about it.”

But the AoA isn’t being shaped with just input from international and industry partners, alone. There are other intelligence and information sources that are expected to help define and shape the AoA – and subsequently the nation’s military satellite infrastructure – moving forward.

We hoped to initially have - at contract award - access to the whole constellation of whichever company we had bought from, equal to the bandwidth we had bought. With the funding and some of the other regulations we had run into, we just weren't able to do that. We're actually going to not have that capability available to us until after the satellite itself is launched.” - Robert Tarleton, Jr on the changes to the Pathfinder Two Program.

We hoped to initially have – at contract award – access to the whole constellation of whichever company we had bought from, equal to the bandwidth we had bought. With the funding and some of the other regulations we had run into, we just weren’t able to do that. We’re actually going to not have that capability available to us until after the satellite itself is launched.” – Robert Tarleton, Jr on the changes to the Pathfinder Two Program.

Path forward defined by Pathfinders and Pilot Programs

In addition to gathering intelligence and information for the creation of the AoA from international partners and experts in private industry, the military is also conducting a series of Pathfinder and Pilot Programs. These programs are designed to create insights and information into the feasibility of disparate purchasing and operating models for SATCOM services.

<Click HERE to access a two-part podcast series focused on the Pathfinder Program and the benefits it has generated for the Air Force.>

The first COMSATCOM Pathfinder, which involved the Air Force acquiring a transponder on an in-orbit satellite over Africa, was widely considered a success by decision makers in the DoD. However, the next Pathfinder program, Pathfinder Two, has met some internal resistance and has been delayed and subsequently altered from its original intent and design – to purchase a transponder prior to launch and then have the ability to trade capacity on that transponder for capacity on other satellites that are providing coverage in geographic areas of need.

According to Mr. Tarleton, “The intent was to look at the business and acquisition processes. So, what has actually changed is our approach to how we’re going to do Pathfinder Two. We hoped to initially have – at contract award – access to the whole constellation of whichever company we had bought from, equal to the bandwidth we had bought. With the funding and some of the other regulations we had run into, we just weren’t able to do that. We’re actually going to not have that capability available to us until after the satellite itself is launched.”

But, despite these setbacks, the military is optimistic that some Pathfinder data – as well as learning from other pilot programs – can be incorporated into the wideband AoA. However, they’ll have to move fast to complete Pathfinder Two, and its successor – Pathfinder Three. Unfortunately, similar setbacks and challenges in how the military is using funds could make it difficult for these programs to be completed in time to influence the AoA.

According to Mr. Tarleton, “With Pathfinder Three, we are also trying to get the funds recolored. That’s going to have to happen very quickly. And, an action was taken and I’m not sure if that’s going to be able to be completed on time…”

Whether findings from the Pathfinder programs are incorporated or not, the wideband AoA marks a clear and deliberate attempt by the military to evolve their space and satellite infrastructure to better meet the challenges of an increasingly congested and contested domain.

By incorporating private industry in both the planning and construction of the nation’s next-generation satellite network, the military is working hard to ensure that this network not only can deliver communications and capabilities effectively and efficiently to the warfighter, but also has the mission assurance necessary to ensure that these capabilities are never compromised.

In our next article on the GovSat Report, we’ll look at another program that was mentioned at the morning briefing, which could fundamentally change the way the military approaches the command, control and management of their military satellite constellation.

*Featured image courtesy of Defense One

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