Home > Defense & Intelligence > Changing space domain calls for a new approach to MILSATCOM

Changing space domain calls for a new approach to MILSATCOM

Last Tuesday, Defense One sponsored a Space and Satellite Communications Morning Briefing. Underwritten by SES Government Solutions, the event featured a panel of space experts from the military and federal government and was well attended by satellite industry professionals, contractors and military decision makers.

I had the opportunity to attend the event and listen to the all-star panel discuss the challenges, changes and opportunities facing the military’s space operations and satellite infrastructure. The panel included:

  • Winston Beauchamp – Director, Principal Department of Defense Space Advisor Staff and Deputy Under Secretary (Space), U.S. Air Force
  • Chirag Parikh – Director of Source Strategies, NGA
  • Robert Tarleton, Jr. – Director, MILSATCOM Systems Directorate, Space and Missile Systems Center, Air Force Space Command, Los Angeles Air Force Base, California
  • Brian Weeden – Technical Advisor, Secure World Foundation

Despite representing separate entities , all four of the panelists had a similar perspective on space – The U.S. needs to adopt new technology and expedite acquisition processes quickly to ensure continued mission assurance and superiority. There are multiple trends and changes in the domain that are forcing the military’s hand.

“…the environment has changed. War is extending to space. Some are now considering [space] part of a conventional conflict.“ - Chirag Parikh, Director of Source Strategies at the NGA.

“…the environment has changed. War is extending to space. Some are now considering [space] part of a conventional conflict.“ – Chirag Parikh, Director of Source Strategies at the NGA.

We’re not alone anymore

Paramount among the changes and challenges facing our nation in space is the fact that space is no longer host to a party of two. There are an ever-increasing number of players in space. This challenge was highlighted by Dr. Weeden when he said:

“We’ve been doing things in space since the 1950s. And it’s only been in the last decade or so that those that work in the field have started to see a pretty drastic amount of change, and that’s being driven by several trends. One of those is that space is becoming more international. Early on, only two countries were operating in space, now there are more than 60 countries that have at least one satellite, and more of them joining the club every year.”

But it’s not just other governments that are starting to launch and maintain satellite constellations. As Dr. Weeden explained, there is an increasing field of commercial satellite providers that are launching spacecraft for a wide range of capabilities and use cases.

According to Dr. Weeden, “Space started as a government endeavor, but that’s changing very rapidly. We’re on the cusp of seeing a revolution or renaissance in commercial space that will see it start doing all sorts of interesting things that government has done in the past…and also a whole bunch of new things we haven’t seen before.”

This congestion in space is not a new topic of discussion. In fact, we’ve covered the issues and challenges that can arise from the expanding ecosystem of satellites in space at great length and in great detail in the past on the GovSat Report. Ultimately, increased congestion greatly increases the chances of collisions between spacecraft.  The increased investment of foreign nations – and adversaries in particular – into their satellite constellations only serves to erode the advantage that space used to provide to the United States military.

What’s more, the U.S. military’s reliance on satellite and the advantages that satellites deliver in theater are no longer exclusive or unknown. Our adversaries know that SATCOM is mission critical to the military, and will look for any way to take SATCOM and other satellite capabilities away from our military during conflicts. This sentiment was shared by Mr. Parikh when he said, “…the environment has changed. War is extending to space. Some are now considering [space] part of a conventional conflict.“

If war is extending to space, then U.S. satellite infrastructure and the capabilities they deliver need to be protected to ensure they’re available to the warfighter during conflicts.

Building a new, more resilient architecture

These new challenges and changes in space come at an interesting and pivotal time in our nation’s space infrastructure.  The Department of Defense (DoD) is now looking forward to the next space architecture for 2030 and beyond.

Regardless of what decisions the military makes regarding its future satellite infrastructure, a focus on resiliency is guaranteed.  One of the ways that the military is exploring to help increase resiliency and enable other benefits is to look to those outside of the U.S. government and military for support – including commercial industry and international allies. This sentiment was reflected by Mr. Parikh, who said:

“We are in a huge transition phase right now. We are already – in the government – talking about the architecture after next. And so as we try to figure out what’s happening in 2030, we have to first figure out what’s happening in the commercial climate, what’s happening in the foreign climate, understand what’s happening in the security climate, and then – based upon that – apply our capabilities towards what we do best, which is solve the hard problems with the resources that we have and then leverage commercial and foreign capabilities to the maximum extent practical.”

The future vision for the military satellite infrastructure is expected to be established in an upcoming Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) that will be conducted by the DoD. This AoA is expected to begin shortly, and will function to identify the path forward for military satellite communications.

Despite the fact that the process for completing the AoA has yet to begin, almost all experts – including the panelists at the event – agree that COMSATCOM will play a vital role in the future of the government satellite infrastructure when it’s completed and released.  One of those reasons involves private industry’s ability to bring new and innovative satellite technologies to market faster than the government could ever dream of. The other relates directly to one of the largest challenges facing us in space – resiliency.

More layers means more mission assurance

The existing constellations of purpose-built military satellites, WGS, is capable and effective for delivering communications and capabilities to warfighters in theater. They’re also easy targets for adversaries.

During a conflict, adversaries may look to eliminate U.S. SATCOM and other capabilities delivered via satellite, and there are multiple ways they can accomplish that – including jamming and kinetic attacks. If these capabilities are being delivered exclusively through the WGS satellite constellation, targeting the correct satellite and compromising them is exceptionally simple. According to Mr. Beauchamp, “Right now, if somebody wanted to deny SATCOM services they pretty much know what satellite they’re being delivered from.”

“Right now, if somebody wanted to deny SATCOM services they pretty much know what satellite they're being delivered from.” - Winston Beauchamp, Director, Principal Department of Defense Space Advisor Staff and Deputy Under Secretary (Space), U.S. Air Force.

“Right now, if somebody wanted to deny SATCOM services they pretty much know what satellite they’re being delivered from.” – Winston Beauchamp, Director, Principal Department of Defense Space Advisor Staff and Deputy Under Secretary (Space), U.S. Air Force.

The military can change this by distributing their SATCOM capabilities and delivering them multiple layers or constellations of satellites. By distributing capabilities across multiple satellites and constellations, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify which satellites are carrying mission-critical communications and capabilities and makes it more difficult to attack them.

This point was validated by Mr. Beauchamp who said, “…If we can evolve from an architecture where we deliver capability from a single layer of identical nodes in space to one where we maintain the exquisite national systems that we have and that we have enjoyed the services of for so long, and augment them with systems that are delivered with commercial capability, international capability and possibly something that is responsive in nature, then it would be very difficult for any of those threats to hold our capability at risk because they wouldn’t know where the capability is being delivered from.”

Aside from distribution of SATCOM signals and capabilities, commercial providers can also help increase mission assurance through their advanced HTS technology. Today, COMSATCOM providers are building and launching a new generation of High Throughput Satellites that utilize high powered spot beams to deliver higher throughputs and increased bandwidth. These high powered spot beams can also be useful in helping protect satellite signals from jamming.

According to Mr. Beauchamp, “…on the COMSATCOM side, (we’re) going to take advantage of the industrial trend towards smaller spot beams of higher power so that jammers would have to be much more numerous and much more close to the action than they would have before to deny a signal.”

With benefits that align directly with the military’s need to increase mission assurance and protect satellite capabilities, it’s no surprise that COMSATCOM is will be a significant mission partner in the future. The challenge for the DoD will be to accurately incorporate the capabilities and benefits of COMSATCOM in their developing AoA.

In our next article on the GovSat Report, we’ll look at the status of the AoA and some of the individual pilot and Pathfinder programs that the military is utilizing to help those conducting the AoA make more informed decisions.

*Featured image courtesy of Defense One

You may also like
New video highlights successful hosted payload programs
Chairman Rogers calls for shake up of national security space community
FAA WAAS leads the way on hosted payloads in the federal government
Avoiding fair fights – Maj. Gen. Thompson discusses future of MILSATCOM at SATELLITE 2017