Jam-proof satellite terminals to shrink dramatically

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Harris is developing a tablet-size modem to protect small satellite terminals.

WASHINGTON — The satellite communications systems that the U.S. Missile Defense Agency uses to send targeting data to interceptor missiles are huge — about the size of a building.

Such high level of SATCOM security has been unheard of in small systems that troops could take to the battlefield aboard a helicopter. But the technology is available, said industry officials. The only question is who will fund it.

As long as the Army was only fighting counterinsurgency wars in places where electronic threats were minimal, there was no urgency to invest in satellite terminals that can operate in “denied” environments. The reality has changed as the U.S. military believes the next war might be against peer competitors that have technologies to disrupt satellite signals.

The Missile Defense Agency’s communication links ensure that interceptors receive precise targeting data throughout their course into space to engage the incoming threat. Commanders also need perfectly reliable systems to send back “damage assessments.”

Officials from Harris Corporation, which provides strategic SATCOM terminals to the Missile Defense Agency, said the company is developing a tablet-size modem to protect small terminals — a compact version of the protected anti-scintillation anti-jam modems that are used by the MDA in very large terminals. The modem ensures that critical data links remain fully operational even in the presence of jamming and high altitude nuclear events.

“We are shrinking the modem to be able to use small tactical terminals,” said W. Scott Potter, senior manager of business development at Harris.

A small terminal — similar to one that Harris provides to U.S. special operations forces — would be about 2 feet tall, the size of a suitcase. And the anti-jam modem is about the size of an iPad, Potter told SpaceNews Oct. 10 at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference.

Small terminals typically are easily jammed, so having an anti-jam capability in a portable system would be significant, he said.

Harris is investing its own money in the development, and is in talks with the MDA and the Army about pitching in additional funds.” They want to accelerate the timeline inside of two years,” said Potter.

Harris Vice President Dennis Moran said the Army’s only secure portable terminals, known as Smart-T, are completely safe from cyberattacks and reliable, but also expensive and scarce, and only work with classified Extremely High Frequency satellites.

Smart-T terminals were first used by the Army and the Marine Corps in the 2003 Iraq invasion. After officials realized there were no threats in that region to satellite signals, the demand for the terminals dropped. Now that the priority is to equip the Army for high-tech warfare, “all of a sudden the Smart-T has become a much more important resource.”

The system has “very small bandwidth but is extremely reliable,” Moran said. In business parlance, “It’s the 100 percent solution. But it’s a very limited resource. You can’t have the entire Army on that.”

The new terminal that Harris is developing would tap into the military’s wideband satellites and commercial services as well. “As you have headquarters that have more needs for large data files and video feeds, this is a very nice capability,” said Moran.

How to equip the Army with secure SATCOM has become a contentious debate since service leaders notified Congress last month that they want to suspend purchases of the mobile-command post version of its tactical warfighter network, known as WIN-T. The system has no anti-jam safeguards and the Army is weighing options to add protection. “Decisions haven’t been made yet,” said Moran. “That’s the drama that’s going on right now.”

Potter said the Army might use some of the funding that it plans to take out of the WIN-T program to pay for the small terminal. The technology is there, he said. “I’ve been amazed with the electronics. They continue to shrink like our cell phones. Power consumption is going way down.”

The suitcase-size terminal runs for 12 hours on just two radio batteries, said Potter. “That’s unheard of. With other terminals that are now fielded, you may get 30 minutes.”