Confessions of a MILSTAR Mafioso


The Berlin Wall began to crumble in November 1989; the satellite communications system designed to counter the Cold War threats behind that wall had a first launch in February 1994. If delivering a relevant system before the threat changes is a measure of effectiveness, the U.S. military failed that test with MILSTAR, and our space systems requirements and procurement process continues to fail this test.

I became a charter member of the “MILSTAR Mafia” in September 1983. I am unapologetic and unashamed of that fact. Having just served as the communications officer for the Navy Task Force that conducted operations across the “Line of Death” in the Gulf of Sidra and evacuated the Palestinian Liberation Organization from Beirut, I was acutely aware of the vulnerability of the only satellite communications system serving the fleet, UHF. The prospect of providing jam-protected communications at an incredibly low bit-error rate appealed to me, much as I hated the idea of going to the Pentagon.

MILSTAR — we got it right, but it took too long!

Having said we failed the test, why would I say we got it right? I believe the tactical uses of MILSTAR in conventional and counterinsurgency operations over the past 15 years have proven the worth of the system. The perceived threat then was a nuclear exchange, and the U.S. military built the only communications system that was (and still is) capable of getting through massive jamming and nuclear scintillation. The side effect of all that signal processing is extremely reliable tactical communications to forces in the field. The arguments against MILSTAR continue to be the limited data rates, but having commanded a destroyer with only UHF SATCOM, trust me when I say that a guarantee of 2,400 bits per second beats the best efforts on UHF and the ability to get through jamming beats any unprotected link. Buy me some good single malt and I’ll spin you the yarn of getting Tomahawk mission data updates via UHF in the Red Sea in 1992. Wish I had a USC-38 EHF terminal, but my command tour was 1990 to 1992, a couple of years before the first MILSTAR satellite was launched. In 1998, the Navy made use of MILSTAR’s potential for tactical support by developing the Tomahawk targeting packages in Hawaii and linking them to the Eisenhower battle group in the Middle East without touching a ground station in between. Did I mention that we went east with that data? Up on the CONUS bird from Hawaii, over the crosslinks to the Atlantic bird, which could see the Eisenhower. The bumper sticker in the Navy EHF program office that year was “It’s Tomahawk, Stupid.”

Which brings me to my point. We promise great things to our forces in the field but we take too long to deliver. Back in 1983, I truly believed we would launch MILSTAR in 1986; then 1988; then … I was certain I would have MILSTAR to use with Tomahawk on my command tour. That’s when I learned a key premise in U.S. government space systems development — the “Big Bang Theory of Space Systems Evolution.” The big bang creates technology miraculously, integrates it instantaneously and unveils a new ground system simultaneously. We have come to rely on this theory still, even though we know the technology elves won’t really show up on time. Further, the new technology in space will make all the current ground systems obsolete and cause us to spend an equal amount on new terminals. MILSTAR remains a classic case; even though we eventually fielded a critically important system, it took too long! And, I was part of the problem. I accepted that space systems took decades to get right. I am truly sorry that it has taken me another two decades to come to the realization that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Later in life, my association with the MILSTAR Mafia gave me the opportunity to help get the Navy Interim Polar EHF System on orbit. That system was the product of a novel concept: Instead of building a dedicated spacecraft and new control systems costing billions of dollars, we built a package from existing EHF technology and bolted it on a classified spacecraft. That resulted in an operational capability in the hands of the end users in less than two years at a bargain basement price. This was heresy in the MILSATCOM business.  Well, turns out the Navy wasn’t just working on the EHF shipboard terminals I sponsored. Nope, it was out building an EHF package to bolt on the bottom of Flights 7 and 8 of the Fleet Satellite Communications System (FLTSAT). The FLTSAT EHF Packages (FEP) were seen to be the mortal enemy of MILSTAR. The concern was that Congress would surely seize upon this low-cost, quick approach to EHF and cancel MILSTAR. I spent much of my time convincing people that FEP was a great pathfinder for MILSTAR and a way to mature the technology at low risk, but because FEP did not have the capacity or crosslinks that were desperately needed by the military, those packages were not a substitute for MILSTAR. We were successful on both counts. FEP 7 and 8 went up in 1986 and 1989, respectively. The FLTSAT packages paid great dividends as the Navy had terminals aboard ships and learned how to use EHF at sea in preparation for MILSTAR. So, I hereby proclaim the U.S. Navy as the pioneer in “hosted payloads”!

The House Armed Services Committee recently examined the defense acquisition system to “evaluate its effectiveness in meeting two critical, and sometimes conflicting, goals: 1) providing the best available services, supplies, equipment and technology to the warfighter when they are needed and 2) providing best value to the taxpayer for every dollar expended.” One of the conclusions was that the Department of Defense “must begin to actually apply its policies expressing a preference for evolutionary acquisition and open systems architecture in ways which result in different acquisition strategies and shorter development timeliness.” The panel further stated that “for the most urgent operational needs, special acquisition processes are clearly warranted,” noting further that “many innovative technologies are being developed at smaller firms, and that even among larger firms, companies that are primarily commercial in nature have been the technology leaders in recent years more so than those in the traditional defense industrial base.”

I have had the honor of being in the presence of some great military leaders. In the context of this epistle, one in particular stands out. I was briefing Gen. Robert Herres, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, one day in 1988 and he said, “We have to stop spending 80 percent of our money on the last 10 percent of capability.” I heard him, but couldn’t do anything about it. About 20 years later, I was talking about networks in space with Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright, then commander of U.S. Strategic Command. He said something to the effect of “bring me an 80 percent solution.” I heard him, but this time I did something about it, and Cisco launched the Internet Routing in Space (IRIS) payload on Intelsat 14 in just over two years. The big difference was that private industry brought all the money to the table and kept the development and integration on a strict commercial schedule. The government wanted to study the concept for a couple of years because we did not have a requirements document or a concept of operations. My thesis was: build it, make it work and put it in the hands of the operators; they will figure out what it can do. Or more cynically, “It’s the Internet, Stupid!”

So, what can the U.S. government do? It’s pretty simple:

  • Make incremental changes to proven designs.
  • Use commercial opportunities to enable technology maturation.
  • Put an end to “big bang” processes.

There is a significant pool of private investment capital willing and able to assist, asking only that the government behave as a rational customer. Much like IRIS on IS-14, privately funded packages can bring new capabilities to our forces in the field much faster than the government procurement process. Of real significance, the risk is shifted to the private investment side of the ledger. The government buys services, not systems, and must stand aside, allowing commercial processes and schedules to build the systems.

The Commercially Hosted Infrared Package (CHIRP) represents an interesting opportunity. CHIRP is a government developed and funded program that could easily be replicated on multiple commercial spacecraft quickly by using private investment. All the government needs to do is agree to purchase the products produced by the package. CHIRP payloads could provide valuable information simultaneously to civil agencies and commercial corporations for firefighting, oil spill containment and other functions, thus spreading the cost over a wider audience and reducing the investment risk.

An even more radical idea would be to replicate the Polar EHF model using a commercial host satellite. Private investment capital would pay for the package and the integration in exchange for a “lease to own” agreement. Got other needs? Want crosslinks? The private investment community is ready to provide. Give us a call.

I have heard most, if not all, of the arguments why these things cannot be done. Adm. Robert E. Peary, the polar explorer, once said, “I will find a way, or make one.” So let’s get started to find a way.

Or, as the House Armed Services Committee said, help the Defense Department “actually apply its policies.”


Bob Maskell, a retired U.S. Navy commander, is chief executive officer of Plan B Space Systems Consulting LLC.