WASHINGTON — The solution to making military space communications secure could be more. More satellites. More partners. More bandwidth. More everything.
Military satcom – and other space-based systems – need to “evolve from an architecture where we deliver capability from a single layer of identical nodes in space,” said Winston Beauchamp, U.S. Air Force deputy undersecretary for space.
Speaking at a Dec. 13 event here hosted by Defense One, Beauchamp said the military is currently relying too heavily on single systems to deliver crucial capabilities.
“Right now, if somebody wanted to deny satcom services, for example, they pretty much know what satellites our capability is being delivered from,” he said. “But in the future it’s going to be much more difficult for them to see, because not only are we going to be leveraging the services in the baseline of a vast number of commercial satcom services, but we’ll have interoperability on the ground such that our comlinks can hop from one satellite to the next, from one constellation to the next, from one frequency to the next.”
Having that multi-pronged capability will “make it very, very difficult for any collection of jammers to deny that capability,” Beauchamp said. “They wouldn’t know, necessarily, where the capability’s being delivered from.”
The government would look at keeping any exquisite systems it has, but could “augment them with systems that are delivered through commercial capability, through the international capability,” he said.
It’s one of the things Pentagon contracting officials are looking at as they begin an analysis of alternatives (AOA) to decide what military satcom is going to look like once the Wideband Global Satcom program concludes — an event expected in 2019 after the launch of the final two WGS satellites.
“We’re at the point with our military systems that we have to make decisions what is the next generation system,” said Robert Tarleton Jr., director of the MILSATCOM Systems Directorate at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles.
The military is going to try “to really bring in the commercial industry and international partners to be part of the AOA and resulting architecture,” he said, and will try to answer questions such as “What’s the right mix of commercial systems with a purpose built military system?” and “How do we take advantage of the more rapid improvements that commercial industry can make on satcom?”
Part of that effort kicked off with the COMSATCOM Pathfinder program, a series of acquisition experiments to test what sorts of out-of-the-box thinking the Pentagon could come up with for satellite communications.
However, the second step in the program, Pathfinder 2, got bogged down in legal questions and was put on hold. The goal was for the military to buy a transponder aboard a commercial satellite that has yet to launch, and then use that stake to obtain the bandwidth they needed across the operator’s whole constellation. But contracting officials were left figuring out whether the Air Force could barter for constellation-wide access without running afoul of current appropriations law.
The Air Force recently posted a request for information for Pathfinder 3, which also posits the pre-launch purchase of a transponder aboard a commercial satellite — but this time one that would serve regions beyond the continental United States. Speaking with reporters after the event, Tarleton said there’s a possibility Pathfinder 3 could run into the same legal trouble that stalled Pathfinder 2. But he noted that uncovering some of the legal hurdles for satcom acquisition is part of Pathfinder’s point.
“We’re looking at that,” he said, when asked about potential legal issues. “I think of the Pathfinders, it’s not just technical, [it’s] how can we get to a commercial capability that we can take advantage of that we can buy? … The intent was to look at the business and the acquisition process.”
It’s important for the Defense Department to get a clear understanding of what capabilities are available currently in satcom, said Chirag Parikh, the director of source strategies for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
“As we try to figure out what’s happening in 2030, we need to first understand what’s happening in the commercial climate, what’s happening in a foreign climate, understand what’s happening in a security climate,” he said.
It’s an issue the U.S. has been grappling with for a long time, he added.
“If you go back to 1976, 40 years ago, there is presidential documentation in the Ford administration that talks about the challenges: do we have more commercial capability, do we have a threat from the Soviet Union, we must have better situational awareness,” he said. “We’ve been talking about this for 40 years.”