Air Force space modernization starts from the ground up

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This article originally appeared in the July 29, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Fair or not, rockets and satellites generally overshadow the ground systems they need to do their missions. But as the U.S. military looks for faster and cheaper ways to get data from satellites, ground systems are attracting growing attention.

The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), based in Los Angeles, is placing greater focus on the modernization of ground systems, says Col. Rhet Turnbull, the head of a new organization within SMC called Cross Mission Ground and Communications Enterprise. This new office was created as part of a major reorganization known as SMC 2.0 that started more than a year ago.

Contractors prepare a ground antenna at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado. Credit: U.S. Air Force

The Cross Mission Ground and Communications Enterprise was finally established in June. Turnbull was previously deputy director of SMC’s Space Superiority Systems Directorate. He is now in charge of a broad portfolio of programs that before the SMC reorganization were managed in isolation and now will be moved under a single umbrella.

Turnbull recently spoke with SpaceNews about the goals of the new organization, which include taking advantage of commercial space technology to make ground systems more flexible, resilient to cyberattacks and responsive to the needs of military commanders in the field.

Why did SMC create the Cross Mission Ground and Communications Enterprise?

This is part of the larger vision of SMC 2.0. We want to provide an enterprise perspective to how we manage all our ground and communications systems. This organization brings together programs that were already being done at SMC but were done under the old model, under separate stovepipes and were not synchronized.

How is this reorganization going to help users of space systems in the field?

We want to tackle our ground systems from an enterprise perspective so we can improve the services that all our satellites need across the board. We must figure out how do we offer those common services for the enterprise, so we pay for it once, build it once, then provide it for everybody.

What part of SMC does the Cross Mission Ground and Communications Enterprise report to?

We are part of the Enterprise Corps, the portion of SMC that provides services. SMC also has a Development Corps focused on research and development, and a Production Corps that oversees programs that are in production. The Enterprise Corps, led by Brig. Gen. Donna Shipton, also includes the Launch Enterprise that manages space launch, and a Product Sustainment Enterprise based in Colorado Springs that is responsible for supporting legacy systems.

What programs fall under the new organization?

We have three divisions. One is for data transport, to get the data from our satellites to where they need to go so we can exploit that data. A key initiative under this division is the modernization of the Air Force Satellite Control Network. The second area is tactical command and control. An important program there is Enterprise Ground Services. EGS will provide a common baseline for satellite command and control instead of building a new ground system every time we build a new satellite, which is the way we’ve typically done it in the past. With EGS, we’ll have one ground system that can fly all of our satellites. The third division is for operational command and control. It focuses on developing software applications for our space command centers: the National Space Defense Center and the Combined Space Operations Center.

What is being done to modernize the decades-old Air Force Satellite Control Network?

The AFSCN is a network of dedicated antennas around the globe the Air Force uses to fly our satellites. One of the projects underway is called Multi-Band Multi-Mission. We are prototyping the use of phased array antennas so we can talk to multiple satellites at once rather than have dedicated antennas like we have today, which are expensive to build and maintain. If we’re going to have more satellites in the future, which we are — we’re talking constellations of hundreds of satellites — how do you talk to all these satellites, how do you command and control, how do you get the data from those satellites? The AFSCN needs to be modernized to increase the capacity, to talk to more satellites and increase resiliency so it’s not a single-point of failure. We want resilient data paths.

U.S. Air Force Col. Rhet Turnbull, center, meets with Lt. Col. Kellie Brownlee, director of the Future Operationally Resilient Ground Evolution (FORGE) program, and Lt. Col. Marc Lewis, Materiel Leader and Range and Network Systems Program Manager, during a staff meeting. Credit: U.S. Air Force Photo / James Spellman Jr.

What technologies are being looked at in the Multi-Band Multi-Mission project?

For now, we are just trying to demonstrate phased array technology for use in the AFSCN. In spring 2019 we selected three companies — Lockheed Martin teamed with Ball Aerospace, L3Harris and Atlas Space Operations — to design prototypes by spring 2020. We are also looking at using commercial antennas to fly some of the Air Force satellites and get data. Amazon Ground Station services is one option we are considering but we’re still in the early stages.

Do you foresee that commercial phased arrays will ever replace military purpose-built antennas in the AFSCN?

Not necessarily. If the Multi-Band Multi-Mission prototype effort ever becomes a full-up program, it would augment, not replace legacy systems. We are excited about phased array technology. We want to prove it works and figure out how much it will cost. The most significant advantage it offers is that you can contact multiple satellites simultaneously. The AFSCN has 15 parabolic antennas, we can only do one contact at a time. Our GPS satellites need dedicated antennas to download information because of the demanding requirements for GPS data.

Do you have a projected timeline to field new systems?

The Cross Mission Ground and Communications Enterprise is a huge portfolio. Each project has a different timeline. We are a brand-new mission directorate and I don’t have all the answers yet. We just stood this up to get everybody into one reporting chain, one organization. There is still a lot of work to be done to synchronize all the different projects. With EGS, the goal is to implement it by 2028. We’re working with each program office to determine between now and 2028 when we can transition to EGS. But I don’t have it all figured out right now. It’s one of our top priorities over the summer to work with our program offices on those transition plans.