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HOT TOPICS: Army weighs commercial options for battlefield communications • Space Command’s D.C. boss introduced • DoD eyes space-based missile defense

THE U.S. ARMY created six specialized brigades to work with foreign allies in what is known as “advise-and-assist” operations. Reliable and hassle-free communications systems are a must for these “security force assistance brigades” that deploy in tough terrains and need to share data with non-U.S. partners.

The Army’s battlefield communications for years has been a disappointment. The equipment is too complex to operate and doesn’t meet the needs of mobile troops. Officials have called for a reset and are considering new options, including greater use of commercial services.

Leading a new effort to improve connectivity for Army units is Maj. Gen. David Bassett, program executive officer for command, control, and communications-tactical, or PEO C3T. Also closely involved is Maj. Gen. Peter Gallagher, who oversees a “cross-functional team” that will put the pieces together.

Gallagher’s office next month is moving from the Pentagon out to Aberdeen, Maryland, where PEO C3T is based. Having both two-stars co-located will help expedite things, officials said. They will be taking a page from U.S. special operations forces, which equip soldiers with cutting-edge mobile communications that can operate in adverse conditions.

During a recent C4ISRNET conference, Basset indicated that he will be talking to commercial satcom providers. “We are looking at MEO [medium-Earth orbit] and LEO [low-Earth orbit] that have lower latency and higher bandwidth.”

THE PUSH TO IMPROVE ARMY TACTICAL COMMUNICATIONS could be good news for satellite operators that have grown increasingly frustrated by the Pentagon not moving to increase use of commercial services.

“The DoD could realize an exponential leap in communications capability by pulling together multiple commercial and military constellations into a single network where users are able to move seamlessly between constellations,” space analyst Warren Ferster wrote in a recent “Government Satellite Report” published by satellite services provider SES.

SES has been relentlessly marketing its O3b MEO fleet of 16 satellites — which operates at about 8,000 kilometers in altitude — as an alternative to geostationary systems located 36,000 kilometers above the equator. “U.S. military officials have touted the benefits of low-latency systems as forces increasingly rely on satellites to support so-called enterprise applications that often are intolerant of signal delays,” Ferster noted.

Opportunities in the military market cannot come soon enough for satellite operators that face a a tough business climate. Carolyn Belle, a senior industry analyst at NSR, said the market is diversifying from GEO-only to a blend of GEO and non-GEO as operators “seek to create more integrated systems capable of seamlessly addressing customer demand,”

Last year was “a bit of a poor market,” Belle told SpaceNews. In 2017 only nine GEO satellites were ordered, a drop from 15 orders in 2016 “which was a bad year to begin with,” said Belle. The business climate should improve as companies figure out how to repackage their services. One way to do that is to create more flexible networks that provide multiple services seamlessly. “Operators will need to be creative,” she said.

Viasat’s government sector president, Ken Peterman, said the industry is pushing the Pentagon to use a hybrid network of military and commercial systems. “The DoD has an opportunity to harness the power of all the military and commercial satcom networks simultaneously in a hybrid adaptive network architecture,” he told SpaceNews. “We see potential for private sector LEO, GEO, and MEO constellations, as well as DoD networks, to exchange data at the fastest rate possible.”

WHAT ABOUT HOSTED PAYLOADS? Commercial operators also are disappointed that the Air Force has slowed down projects to host military payloads on commercial satellites. They have raised their concerns on Capitol Hill, resulting in language in the House Armed Services Committee’s version of the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that directs the Pentagon to seize oversight of military investments in hosted payloads. “Some folks in Congress are not happy” that the Air Force and DoD are not taking advantage of commercial satellite capacity available to host military payloads, said Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There are a lot of great opportunities to increase resiliency and capacity.”

AIR FORCE SPACE COMMAND’S MAN IN WASHINGTON The new vice commander of Air Force Space Command, Lt. Gen. David “DT” Thompson made his first public appearance last week. “Some people are calling me ‘East Coast Thompson,’” he said. The Air Force last fall decided that Space Command chief Gen. John Raymond should have a deputy based in the Pentagon so he can spend less time traveling back and forth to D.C. and more time running operations in Colorado Springs. Just a few weeks into the job, Thompson said the learning curve has been smooth. “I have been preparing for this for about a year,” he said. “What I didn’t expect was how important it was to have a senior uniformed official in the Pentagon working with the air staff who deeply understood space. We needed somebody to work space every single day,” he said. “Before, I didn’t recognize how much that was needed. We are trying to raise the conversation inside the Pentagon and in Congress on the things we’re doing in space.” WATCH HIS REMARKS HERE

Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS)
Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS)

TRACKING MISSILES FROM SPACE The Pentagon is looking at the possibility of deploying sensors in space to fill blind spots in the nation’s missile defense system. Six previous administrations have weighed concepts for space-based sensors but none materialized — the exception being two experimental satellites launched during the George W. Bush presidency that are still in orbit. The Trump administration is expected to seek funds in 2020 to begin work on a constellation of missile-watching sensors. Congress has hinted it would support the plan in light of new warnings that Russia is testing hypersonic ballistic glider weapons that currently would be undetectable after the initial boost phase of their flight. To track these ultra-high-speed gliders, the vantage point of space would be advantageous, said Tom Karako, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We’re hearing a lot of good words about a space sensor layer. But as of right now it has not been translated into programs and budgets,” Karako said. The Pentagon is expected to shed light on its future plans in the upcoming Missile Defense Review.

FIFTH AIR FORCE AEHF SATELLITE UNDERGOES TESTS The fifth Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF-5) satellite completed tests successfully in preparation for delivery to the U.S. Air Force in 2019, Lockheed Martin reported on Monday. AEHF-5 was subjected to extreme cold and heat in zero atmosphere, to simulate its upcoming on-orbit life. The satellite also completed acoustic testing, subjected to high intensity, low frequency sound waves that simulated the vibrations generated by a rocket propelling its payload from zero to over 17,500 miles per hour in under eight minutes. After its anticipated 2019 launch, the satellite will join the AEHF constellation that provides highly-secure communications to the U.S. military. The fourth AEHF satellite will be shipped to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station later this year in preparation for a launch on an Atlas V launch vehicle.


SATCOM INDUSTRY SUPPORTS UN Nine satellite companies agreed to donate satellite capacity and equipment to the United Nations, seeking to coordinate their responses to natural disasters. The industry has been overshadowed by the collective emergency response efforts of the cellular industry. Satellite communications companies are often called upon by governments and nonprofits when natural disasters or other crises destroy cellular towers and other terrestrial infrastructure.

PARSONS ACQUIRES POLARIS ALPHA Parsons, a government contractor with more than $3 billion in annual revenues, has acquired Polaris Alpha, a defense and intelligence technology firm with a growing business in space, artificial intelligence, command and control and cybersecurity. The acquisition fits into Parsons’ strategy to expand its high-tech government services business, particularly in space, intelligence and cybersecurity. “With the acquisition of Polaris Alpha, our space portfolio becomes much stronger,” said Carey Smith, president of Parsons’ federal business unit.

PLANET LOOKS TO DISRUPT MARKET Planet is trying to break into the top tier of the remote-sensing business by offering “guaranteed” high-resolution images to customers on the day and time of their choosing. The company has 13 remote-sensing SkySat satellites. “This means having satellites overhead every day, twice a day. It’s access that doesn’t exist in the market right now,” said SkySat product lead Louis Rousmaniere. SkySat’s 72-centimeter imagery is not as detailed as Maxar Technologies DigitalGlobe’s 30-centimeter imagery, but Planet is going after many of the same target customers — including the U.S. government, corporations and commodity traders — who want access to high-quality imagery on a predictable schedule.

DARPA LAUNCH CHALLENGE UPDATE On May 23, DARPA is sponsoring a Competitors’ Day in Los Angeles to provide detailed information to potential participants. More than 100 people have registered thus far, including representatives from more than 20 potential launch teams and more than 15 different groups providing component or support services. Information shared from the Competitors’ Day will be available after the event on the DARPA Launch Challenge website:

The DARPA Launch Challenge is designed to promote rapid access to space within days. In late 2019, qualified teams will compete to launch and deliver payloads, not once, but twice to low Earth orbit. The challenge will award a top prize of $10 million for the first place team that successfully launches to low Earth orbit within days’ notice and completes a second launch from a different site days later.

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Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...