U.S. Air Force Maps Out Next Steps with Protected Tactical Waveform

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WASHINGTON  — The U.S. Air Force is expected to demonstrate its newly developed protected tactical waveform in new modems and reworked terminals as early as 2018 as part of a long-term strategy to bolster the service’s ability to offer protected communications using either military or commercial satellites.

According to slides accompanying a Nov. 5 presentation by Deanna Ryals, chief of the International Military Satellite Communication Office at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, the service plans to issue a request for proposals in January for modems that could be integrated into the terminals currently used with the Air Force’s Wideband Global Satcom satellites.

In theory, the new modems could be swapped out with modems on existing WGS and commercial terminals to process the protected tactical waveform, a far less expensive option than building new terminals. Air Force officials have said terminals are the most costly element of military satellite communications programs.

The Air Force expects to award a contract for the modems during summer 2015 and conduct over-the-air field demonstrations in 2018 and 2019, according to the slides, which accompanied a presentation by Ryals at the Global Milsatcom Conference in London.

Facing rising demand for satellite bandwidth and a growing problem with signal jamming, the Air Force has funded a series of tests to evaluate alternatives for dramatically lowering the cost of delivering secure services via both commercial and military satellites. Although the Air Force operates a highly secure satellite system, dubbed Advanced Extremely High Frequency, most military communications traffic is handled by WGS and commercial satellite systems, both of which are vulnerable to jamming.

Boeing Space & Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California, Intelsat General Corp. of Bethesda, Maryland, Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems of El Segundo, and Space Systems/Loral (SSL) of Palo Alto, California, are among the companies that received study contracts under the initial part of the effort, which according to the slides has been largely completed.

The next round of studies is aimed at informing an Air Force decision on an “affordable family of systems” that would support the protected tactical waveform, Ryals’ presentation slides said. These systems would operate over WGS, Defense Department free-flyer satellites — these have been described by Air Force officials as relatively small satellites with limited, single-payload missions — and commercial satellites, the slides showed.

The Air Force hopes to demonstrate the transmission of the protected waveform via production-representative terminals over both WGS and commercial satellites in 2018, the slides said.

Boeing announced Nov. 4 a successful test involving the transmission of data from a Boeing-built ground terminal and programmable modem to a satellite simulator and then to a second terminal built by Lincoln Labs. Boeing said the test demonstrated the waveform’s compatibility with different terminal platforms.

In a Nov. 6 interview, Boeing executives said the level of protection was similar to that provided by the tactical payloads aboard Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites. Contractors on the Advanced Extremely High Frequency system, which also is designed to provide nuclear-survivable communications to strategic forces, have disputed similar assertions in the recent past.

“We’ve confirmed this technology can be applied quickly and affordably to existing assets, especially operational WGS satellites and ground terminals,” Dan Hart, vice president of Boeing Government Satellite Systems, said in the press release. “With threats to secure communications becoming increasingly frequent and sophisticated, providing this enhanced capability to warfighters on the ground is critical.”