Report Recommends Middle Tier of U.S. Tactical Communications

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force should leverage its existing secure satellite communications capabilities to create a new class of service that fills the gap between protected and unprotected systems, says a new report by a think tank here.

The report, prepared by the independent Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the military should move from a two-tiered architecture featuring protected and unprotected systems to a three-tiered scheme that includes a mid-level protected capability for tactical users.

To get there, the report said, the Air Force should leverage investments in its Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) system of supersecure, nuclear command and control satellites rather than invest in a costly brand new system. Dubbed “The Future of Milsatcom” and released in July, the report was authored by Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the nonprofit think tank.

One of the ways in which the Air Force might resist the temptation to invest in a new system is by reducing the number of personnel who devise new system requirements, the report said. That move also would save money because contractors that build satellite communications systems would need fewer people to interface with their government overseers, the study said.

The report noted that U.S. space systems are increasingly vulnerable to threats from U.S. adversaries. But just as dangerous, the study said, are high costs that derail certain space projects before any satellites are built and deployed.

The AEHF system, designed to operate under all conditions, including a nuclear war environment, was a special focus of the report. Currently the AEHF system includes strategic payloads, which must be able to operate in a nuclear war environment, and tactical payloads. 

Arguing that the Pentagon’s other main satellite communications systems, the Air Force Wideband Global Satcom and the Navy’s Mobile User Objective System, do not provide a high level of protection against jamming, Harrison said the AEHF system could be leveraged to provide the middle tier of protected capability for tactical users. This echoes calls from some in the Pentagon and in industry to place AEHF tactical payloads on separate satellites that do not require expensive hardening against the effects of nuclear radiation.  

“The Air Force could leverage the existing AEHF communications payload, including the waveform, antennas, modems, and other components, to create a hosted protected payload for tactical users,” the report said. “The Air Force can also keep buying AEHF satellites to replenish the constellation as needed and avoid creating another costly break in production.”

AEHF prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., is expected to build a total of six satellites under a contract worth an estimated $9 billion or more, including associated ground systems. Two of the satellites, AEHF 1 and AEHF 2, have been launched to date.   

The report said the middle-tier satellite system “could be a constellation of cross-linked AEHF-based payloads hosted on other satellites. The hosted payloads could form a separate ‘tactical’ ring of protected satellites that could be reconfigured, if needed, to join or supplement the existing strategic ring of AEHF satellites.”

The report suggests the other satellites could be owned by the U.S. military, private companies or international partners.

Creating the middle-tier capability could be funded by drawing resources from unprotected systems, the report said. “The lowest tier of the architecture would be reserved for all other non-essential communications and could be acquired as a service rather than a system,” the report said.

Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, and Frank Kendall, the Defense Department’s head of acquisition, have both said in recent months that in a constrained and uncertain budget environment the Air Force needs to change how it buys and deploys satellite capabilities.

Harrison said the barriers to change include the Pentagon’s complex acquisition process and the time it takes to develop space systems.   

“These factors tend to reinforce one another in what has been called the ‘vicious cycle of space acquisition,’” the report said. “Higher costs lead to smaller constellations and longer production times; smaller constellations require more capabilities to be packed into each satellite; and packing more capabilities into each satellite drives up complexity, leading to even higher costs and longer production times.”

Harrison also suggested that the Defense Department avoid trying to create competition where it does not already exist.  

“A sole source award — while not ideal — may cost the government less overall than an artificial competition that pays a second contractor to perform redundant development work or operate a redundant production line.” 

The report did not cite any programs in particular. However, the Air Force, frustrated with delays and cost overruns on a Boeing-led effort to develop a new line of AEHF terminals dubbed the Family of Beyond Line of Sight Terminals, last year awarded Raytheon a contract to develop a competing system.