Space communications: As the industry launches new products, military can’t decide what to buy

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Todd Harrison, CSIS analyst: “The institutions aren’t fit for the needs that we have today."

WASHINGTON — The latest Pentagon review of how the U.S. military should buy space communications is expected to wrap up in the coming weeks. The likely conclusion is that the military needs a mix of government-owned satellites and commercial services.

There is not much clarity or consensus, however, on how the Defense Department and the military services should go about buying services from the private sector at a time when the market is offering more choices and competitive pricing than ever before.

The central problem is a military culture that wants to buy hardware the old-fashioned way and fears change, Todd Harrison, director of the aerospace security project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told lawmakers recently.

“The institutions aren’t fit for the needs that we have today,” he said. The Air Force has an office that buys wideband satellites. “But you don’t need to do that anymore. You can buy them as a service.” Satcom services are the responsibility of the Defense Information Systems Agency, an entirely different organization with a separate chain of command and budget. “When your organization is fractured like that, it is hard to make good decisions and tradeoffs,” said Harrison. “That’s why we see the military struggle.”

Space communications is just one area where the Pentagon is paralyzed by indecision. This is a problem seen across most space programs, said Fred Kennedy, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s tactical technology office.

Fred Kennedy, director of DARPA tactical technology office.
Fred Kennedy, director of DARPA tactical technology office.

DARPA is looking to shake up the established order with a program called Blackjack that seeks to bring commercial space technologies into the military.

There is a fear of change in the Pentagon that “puts us in this kind of frightening place of risk aversion,” Kennedy said in an interview with SpaceNews. “We are paralyzed by the thought of moving to a new architecture.”

With Blackjack, “we are going to go marry up with the commercial sector,” he said. Among the hot technologies are the new low-Earth orbiting (LEO) constellations. Kennedy would like to see the military adopt some of the business ethos of the space industry that mass-produces satellites and doesn’t “test, check and review everything until the cows come home,” he said. “We have to get out of that mode.”

Kennedy hopes to see the Blackjack program influence not only how the military buys services but also how it builds its own constellations.

The Air Force is participating as well. “We need to figure out how to service the warfighter directly,” Kennedy said. There has to be more “commercial leveraging.” This means the government has to sign up deals with up-and-coming satellite service providers. “If we don’t get in early, these folks are going to march off to their commercial customer requirements and we’ll never get our hooks in.”

The “hooks” are the military capabilities that commercial companies may not be thinking about as they build their systems. “It’d be more helpful to do that now as constellations are being developed,” Kennedy said.

DARPA’s interest in small-satellite LEO services reflects a growing consensus that these constellations are better positioned than large geosynchronous orbit (GEO) spacecraft to survive enemy attacks in a future war.

“GEO is a known quantity, everybody understands it,” said Kennedy. ”As a result it doesn’t have the benefits of sanctuary it once had,” he said. “We have to decide: ‘Do we want to continue to play there, do we want to look for other alternatives? I think the answer is probably both.”

GEO could become a difficult place to operate, he said. “That’s the value of looking at commercial options because they’re all for the most part headed to LEO.”

DARPA has $10 million in the 2018 budget for Blackjack technology demonstrations, and is requesting $15 million for 2019.

The demonstrations are planned for 2021, said Kennedy. “We can show we can leverage commercial constellations and provide real capability to the warfighter.”

According to industry sources, companies likely to compete in the Blackjack program include Iridium, SpaceX, Telesat and LeoSat.

Threats to satellites 

Former assistant secretary of defense for space policy Doug Loverro said the most worrisome threat to satellites is jamming. Everyone worries about cyber attacks, but these are harder to pull off than simply jamming signals. That can be done by almost anybody. “Some guy in the middle of a field with a TV truck can do jamming,” he said at a Defense One event March 14.

Satellites are in GEO orbit mostly for convenience, Loverro said. “You launch as few satellites as you can, put them in geosynchronous orbit and communicate with them. With four satellites I can cover the Earth. It just doesn’t happen to be a very good place to fight from.”

Loverro recalled that the classified military communications constellation known as AEHF was originally designed to be in an inclined orbit where the satellites would be safer from attack. “After the Cold War ended, we thought ‘wouldn’t it be more convenient and cheaper to put them in GEO orbit? Yes, but not militarily a wise thing to do.’”

LEO orbits can’t be jammed easily, he said. “You can only see one satellite overhead and not the other 4,000. It’s a much better way to place satellites than in the four traditional orbits that DoD uses.”

The military for decades has used commercial services from GEO satellite operators to supplement the government-owned Wideband Global SATCOM. This industry not only faces competition from LEO systems but also from the government itself.

The Air Force has bought 10 WGS satellites — some with funding from international allies that use the service — and had planned to stop acquiring new ones and use more commercial services. Congress has disrupted that plan by adding $600 million to the fiscal year 2018 budget for two new WGS satellites. The move was seen as a sign that Congress is not confident in the Air Force’s strategy to acquire satcom services.

‘Hybrid’ architecture

“Today we operate a hybrid commercial and military architecture. But it was not done deliberately. It was put together over time,” said Air Force Col. George Nagy, who oversees the wideband communications “analysis of alternatives” study.

Speaking at the Defense One event, Nagy said one of the major takeaways from the AoA is that the Pentagon is spending way too much money on ground equipment. Everyone thinks satellite services are expensive but 75 percent of the wideband enterprise costs resides on the ground, not in space. The user terminals and ground infrastructure is overdue for changes, he said. “We need common interfaces.”

With regard to satellites, the Pentagon will consider both GEO and LEO systems. “We don’t want to over prescribe solutions,” said Nagy.

Rick Lober, an industry executive who has been involved in the wideband AoA, said the Pentagon has “learned a lot” from pilot programs with the private sector. “I believe progress is being made,” said Lober, who is vice president and general manager for defense and intelligence at ‎Hughes Network Systems.

In programs known as “pathfinders,” DoD has become more familiar with “how to buy bandwidth and managed services,” he told SpaceNews. “Unfortunately there’s a lot of legal statutes that probably slow some things down,” he added. “The general conclusion is that we are heading to a hybrid architecture” with both military and commercial systems.

LEO will be part of the mix, said Lober. Hughes is a GEO service provider but has also teamed up with OneWeb. LEO has advantages for the military like lower latency and polar coverage, said Lober. Once the industry starts mass-producing electronically steered flat antennas to replace traditional parabolic dishes, LEO services should take off.

Brian Weeden, a space policy expert at the Secure World Foundation, said DoD indecision about buying commercial services is a classic example of organizations instinctively trying to protect their interests. The national space policy issued nearly 10 years ago by the Obama administration said DoD had to work more closely with commercial industry and with allies. “We still haven’t done that,” Weeden said. It is natural for bureaucracies to want to keep their budgets and their missions from being challenged. A shift from buying satellites to using commercial services could mean the end of many offices and jobs. So a decision of whether to buy commercial “ends up not being about rational analysis but organizational cultures and how those impact decision making.”