In the June 7 Commentary “Only One Solution for Secure Satcom” [page 19], Loren Thompson presents an informative and compelling argument for protected communications to support our warfighters, suggesting the need for reliance on systems like the Transformational Communications Satellite (T-Sat) and Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite.
Ultimately, the decision by the Department of Defense (DoD) to cancel T-Sat was one about affordability and uncertainty in requirements given the future environment. Providing future continuity of communications in a contested and congested operational environment will require solutions that are affordable and protect our core communications, not just the 15 percent required for National Command Authority activity.
The concept of “protected communications” is outdated. There is more to ensuring warfighters have continuous communications than loading as much as possible on our Extremely High Frequency (EHF) systems, like AEHF and T-Sat.
Protected communications was derived from Cold War requirements when the most significant threat seemed to be loss of continuity through a nuclear blast. Nuclear hardened satellites are much more costly to develop and have development timelines along with those of T-Sat, AEHF and Milstar. Today our greatest threat is from ground-based jamming, interception or cyber activity. These are much simpler problems to address than survival through nuclear attack and can be done quicker and wiser with less cost than loading all communications on a hardened EHF satellite.
Adoption of three ideas would provide the DoD with protected and sustainable communications solutions for the future.
First, the DoD should move to a distributed, three-tiered space architecture. The architecture should leverage multiple nodes consisting of EHF systems for the Tier 1 requirements covering the 15 percent of highly sensitive communications addressed by Mr. Thompson. A second tier should provide the core of our military satellite communications (milsatcom) architecture and be the key workhorse of secure long-haul communications by leveraging systems like Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) and Defense Satellite Communications System before it. The third tier would be a foundational component providing day-to-day nonsensitive communications supplied by commercial providers. This space architecture should sit atop and interface with the airborne and terrestrial communications infrastructure to round out our national capability. This approach recognizes the contributions of and allocates communication to the disparate and valuable components of our milsatcom architecture, while ensuring their existence well into the future. More important from a survivability perspective, it spreads risk across multiple systems, raising the cost and impotence of an adversary attack.
Second, the department should leverage technologies, like spread spectrum and frequency-hopping, that will address anti-jam and electronic survivability requirements through much more affordable and timely solutions. In the past, strategists believed that using EHF for communications would make it impossible for adversaries to get a hold of the communications signal. In fact, it will make it extremely difficult for an adversary to penetrate. However the cost difference between Super High Frequency and EHF is just under $1 billion per satellite. Increasing the use of spread spectrum and frequency-hopping on wideband communications systems will make it difficult to get a hold of the signal, but at a fraction of the cost. It will require additional research and development to evolve and stay ahead of the threat, yet this technology exists and could be matured to ensure communications survivability.
Finally, continued evolution of our current systems in this three-tiered architecture is the most cost-effective and operationally smart way to ensure continued capability in the future. Adding capacity on AEHF will give us more of the Tier 1 capability and progress in ensuring protected communications. However, it does nothing toward ensuing continuity of the majority of the DoD force structure involved in future operations, which will be using Tier 2 communications. To be successful, the department must also evolve WGS and incorporate technologies like the ones mentioned above that will increase its jam and penetration resistance. Creating a Capability Insertion Program, much like that used for GPS, would be the best way to ensure this evolution. The department must also find ways to communicate its nonsensitive, day-to-day requirements to the commercial satellite industry so that it might be able to incorporate design changes or host specific payloads dedicated for those needs. Leveraging lessons learned and nonrecurring investment from other acquisitions will be the quickest and most effective way to field the warfighter with protected communications capability.
The DoD has a distaste and fatigue with acquisition programs that require billions of dollars, take a decade to build, and fail to address the future operational environment. Attempting to create a “son of T-Sat” would only give us more of what we already decided we don’t want, while wasting more money and time. Relying solely on AEHF to protect our communications capability would be shortsighted and leave us vulnerable. It is time to bring the concept of protected communications into the future. Looking at new architectural approaches, using proven technologies and evolving our current systems provides the best chance to protect our communications capability for the future in an affordable manner.