USAF-funded Tests Demonstrate Low-cost Secure Satcom Options

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WASHINGTON — Experiments funded as part of a broader U.S. Air Force examination of protected satellite communications alternatives have demonstrated the potential for dramatically lowering the cost of delivering highly secure services via both commercial and military satellites, industry officials say.

The findings are among the first to come out of $84 million worth of studies the Air Force funded in 2012 under the Protected Military Satellite Communications Design for Affordability Risk Reduction Demonstration. The two-year effort, announced in November 2012, is designed to improve the Air Force’s understanding of the “respective building blocks that address future protected tactical communications,” the service said.

In September, Boeing Space & Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif., announced it had transmitted a protected tactical communications waveform through a commercial satellite in a test that means, at least in theory, that secure military communications could be delivered to any place on Earth with commercial satellite coverage, the company said.

That claim, however, comes with a caveat: The commercial satellite in question must meet certain ground processing and protected communications requirements. Diana Ball, a spokeswoman for Boeing, said many, but not all, commercial satellites would likely meet these requirements.

In October, meanwhile, Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems of El Segundo, Calif., transmitted  data using a secure waveform to a small, low-cost terminal, the company said. That test demonstrated the viability of increasing the level of protection for signals transmitted via the Air Force’s Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) satellite constellation, the company said.

The ability to increase the level of protection on satellite transmissions would give the Pentagon more options as it turns its attention toward Asia, industry officials said. The additional options are important, industry executives said, as Air Force leaders have repeatedly cited resiliency as a key tenet of the military’s future space architecture.

In the Boeing experiment, the company used a protected tactical waveform to transmit information over ViaSat-1, a commercial broadband satellite launched in 2011 that operates exclusively in the Ka-band. The waveform was jam-proof, intercept-proof and detection-proof and included higher levels of encryption, Ball said. In a Sept. 18 press release, the company said the experiment showed the Defense Department could increase the availability of highly secure bandwidth at a low cost and proved that the government signal is compatible with commercial standards and frequencies.

Using commercial satellites for highly sensitive communications is now a viable alternative to deploying more dedicated, and expensive, military spacecraft, said Craig Cooning, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space & Intelligence Systems.

“This is a breakthrough use of commercial technology for U.S. warfighters and allies — and further credit to our team’s ingenuity that they accomplished it within nine months of contract award,” Cooning said.

The Raytheon experiment entailed using a small, low-cost terminal to receive a protected waveform similar to — albeit far less complex than — the one used with the Air Force’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites that carry the most critical national security communications traffic. AEHF satellites are designed to provide assured communications links under all conditions, including a nuclear war.

The waveform could operate in Q-, X- and Ka-bands with a greater level of protection than currently found on some military satellites, including the WGS satellites, Raytheon officials said.

Brian Rodriguez, director of business development for Raytheon Integrated Communication Systems, said the findings show that the Air Force can fairly easily boost the level of protection for WGS transmissions. For example, troops using the WGS system, which provides X- and Ka-band communications, could simply change out the modems in their terminals for an added layer of protection. Alternatively, companies such as Raytheon could build new terminals that would offer additional protection built in, he said.

Rodriguez said the Air Force and Raytheon plan to test the waveform with an on-orbit WGS satellite in December. Raytheon has received about $15.5 million to date to conduct the tests.