The GovSat Report recently had the opportunity to experience the SATCON 2015 Conference firsthand in New York City. The conference – which took place this year as part of the National Association of Broadcasters’ (NAB) Content and Communications World (CCW) event – is one of the world’s largest satellite focused events and brings together COMSATCOM providers, manufacturers of spacecraft and ground terminals and even government decision makers to look at the major trends and challenges impacting the satellite industry today.
As we discussed in previous posts, this conference came at a very exciting time for the satellite industry. The promise of New Space, the introduction of startups and innovative technology firms looking to do new and exciting things in space, and the decreasing cost of doing business in space has the industry buzzing about what the future holds for the industry. However, the discussions at the conference also illustrated the negative side of this rapid satellite and space expansion, as the need to secure assets in space in what is increasingly becoming a contested environment dominated much of the discussion.
One of those trends – the need to protect satellite assets – was discussed at length during the keynote address by Lt. Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, Commander of the 14th Air Force (Air Forces Strategic) Air Force Space Command, and the Commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space at U.S. Strategic Command.
But before delving into why satellites are at risk, the General discussed the role that SATCOM and COMSATCOM are playing in today’s military and why it’s so important to protect them. As the General, himself, stated, “The United States military is going to spend $10 Billion this year on space alone.” And that investment is being made for a very good reason. In the General’s words, “There’s nothing that goes on today in theater that isn’t enabled or enhanced by the space capabilities that we provide.”
With SATCOM services and capabilities so essential for the military today, protecting them is a priority. But what, exactly, are we protecting them from?
There are three disparate threats that can drastically impact the military’s SATCOM infrastructure and ability to deliver essential SATCOM services to the warfighter – congestion, direct attack and natural phenomenon. When the United States first began launching military satellites, only one of these was an issue – natural threats from phenomenon such as solar weather. These were the only threats, because space was a relatively benign environment, free of adversaries and with little commercial satellite traffic.
Today, that environment is drastically different. Congestion from commercial satellites, debris and satellites from other nations all pose a collision risk for America’s military satellites. The scope of this issue was well illustrated by the General, when he said, “On average, once every three days, a satellite maneuvers to avoid hitting another satellite. Last year alone, the International Space Station was moved three times.”
Then there are overt acts of aggression from our adversaries in space. The U.S. and its allies aren’t the only nations with satellites any more. Our adversaries are now utilizing satellites in the same ways and for the same benefits as the United States. As General Raymond put it, “Adversaries have had a front-row seat, watching our success and figuring out the operational, strategical, and tactical advantages that we gain from [SATCOM].”
Seeing the benefits and capabilities that SATCOM is enabling for the warfighter, our adversaries are now identifying ways to neutralize satellites so that they can gain a tactical advantage on the battlefield. One example the General provided involved the kinetic ASAT satellite that China tested in 2007, which destroyed a satellite – creating concern and even more potentially-harmful space debris as a result.
To help combat these threats and keep satellites safe, the military needs up-to-date, accurate information about the location of debris and satellites in space. And to get the most data possible, they’re partnering with COMSATCOM providers, according to General Raymond:
“In the past, we haven’t had to have partnerships. We could do it by ourselves. The domain was a benign place. We didn’t have to have partnerships as much with [COMSATCOM providers]. That’s not the case today…The US Strategic Command has signed space situational awareness data sharing agreements with 50 different companies around the globe, a lot of different governments and their agencies and this allows for the two-way sharing of space situational awareness.”
The Air Force also integrated COMSATCOM providers into the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), a command and control system that executes Strategic Command’s space mission. By having COMSATCOM providers together with military personnel, information sharing and decision making can be done more effectively and efficiently.
General Raymond also referenced how COMSATCOM services can help to protect government SATCOM from other threats – including direct attack by adversaries. Spreading military data, sensors and communications across commercial satellites and via hosted payloads can increase resiliency through deception and disaggregation, while also providing redundancy if government satellites go offline or are otherwise compromised.
General Raymond described the role that COMSATCOM can play in the protection of military SATCOM capabilities when he said, “Disaggregation is one of the options that we’re looking at for resiliency in space. Sensors previously contained on a single satellite are dispersed across several, smaller, less complex and more affordable satellites. We can spread these capabilities across a number of different platforms, including hosted payloads, free-flying payloads, smaller satellites, government, commercial and others. This will make adversary’s tactical and targeting problems much more difficult.”
Despite the benefits of COMSATCOM, which carries approximately 60 percent of the military’s communication, there are still some challenges to increased, seamless integration of COMSATCOM into the military’s SATCOM networks and systems. The way the military currently purchases COMSATCOM services has led to an environment where COMSATCOM and government-owned satellite assets are not looked at as one, integrated platform. This eliminates the military’s ability to rapidly reallocate data to COMSATCOM satellites, reduces agility and creates other inefficiencies.
This sentiment was echoed by Retired Major General Jay Santee, who currently serves as the Director of Resilient, Affordable Space at The MITRE Corporation, during a panel discussion featuring General Raymond and multiple members of the COMSATCOM industry. In his introductory remarks during the panel discussion, General Santee called for an end to the traditional one year contracts that the government currently uses for purchasing COMSATCOM services and, instead, challenged the military to more robustly integrate and partner with industry – working to bring COMSATCOM bandwidth into the enterprise and build it into the network.