Satcom’s top priority should be better protection, experts say

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WASHINGTON – If there’s one specific area to improve in military satcom right now, it should be increasing protection for existing and future systems, several experts said June 30.

“Milsatcom is such a precious resource,” said Army Maj. Gen. Peter Gallagher, director of architecture, operations, networks, and space for the Army chief information officer. “Because this is such a precious resource, we have to protect it.”

Speaking at the MilSatcom USA conference hosted by the SMi Group, Gallagher said that “one of the things I’m concerned about — that we need to invest in in the future — is this anti-jam capability, protected satcom. That’s something that’s critical for the space domain that’s getting ever-more contested.”

While the military does have some protected systems, like the Lockheed Martin-built Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites, there isn’t enough capacity to meet demand right now, the general said. Plus, even basic communications need to be resistant to jamming from a potential adversary.

“The biggest thing that we need is protected satcom, anti-jam capability, in the future,” Gallagher told SpaceNews. “Anticipating future threats and making sure we address them, I think that’s the most critical thing.”

Mark Schwene, the director of advanced satellite communications at Northrop Grumman, said it’s been a common theme in discussions between industry and the military.

“The [Combatant Commands], as we’re out talking to people, are continuing to ask for more protected satellite communications,” he said. “They continue to ask what can we do about getting protection for our end users?”

The need for protection is important because adversaries can attack any point in a system, said Brian Teeple, the deputy chief information officer for command, control, communications, and computer (C4) at the Defense Department.

“It comes down to ‘what is the weakest link? What are they going to go after?’” he said.

In addition to protection for the frequencies and signals themselves, the military and industry must also start focusing on cybersecurity for ground systems, Teeple said.

“You have to start looking at terminals and user equipment like they’re computers,” he said. “There are cyber vulnerabilities and we’ve got to get cyber protections in place.”

Marine Col. Curtis Carlin — who currently works at U.S. Central Command that oversees military action in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan — said capabilities that can potentially jam communications are becoming more prolific, and could cause problems in any battlefield.

“I really think the fact that we don’t have as many protected systems as we should have, that really concerns me,” he said. “I look out there and see our vulnerabilities now that could be greatly exploited from not that advanced an enemy…I want my systems protected.”