On National Security | Signs of change in military space

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“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Nov. 12, 2018 issue.

The fate of the Trump administration’s Space Force plan is very much up in the air. One takeaway from the results of the midterm elections is that this is likely to be a protracted and contentious fight.

Despite a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the military space enterprise, there are signs that changes are happening in response to the high-level attention paid to space as a domain of warfare. The more noticeable shifts are in procurement activities, in part driven by congressional provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act over the past two years that instruct the Defense Department to change its buying ways as rival powers step up the development of anti-satellite weapons.

One of the agencies that has come under greater scrutiny is the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), responsible for buying 90 percent of the military’s space systems. A realignment of the SMC organization, known as SMC 2.0, has been underway for several months. However, its future could be unsettled by the creation of a new space-buying organization, the Space Development Agency (SDA), which is part of the administration’s broader Space Force proposal.

The Pentagon believes a new agency is needed to take over the development of next-generation space systems and work more closely with the commercial industry. Details are still fuzzy on how the SDA would integrate with SMC, or where it would fit in the larger org chart. One of SMC’s top civilian leaders, Deanna Ryals, chief partnership officer, talked about this at the 2018 Global MilSatcom conference last week in London. She said the SDA could be a welcome addition to the space enterprise if it can provide a unifying voice for military space requirements. Programs today are fragmented and managed in stovepipes, which prompted the reorganization of SMC to try to flatten the management structure. Ryals said SMC would like to see tighter collaboration with the other services, and the SDA might be a vehicle to do that.

Better support of ground forces is a major issue that SMC is grappling with. The Army has become increasingly dependent on space-based services and has struggled for years to provide reliable, modern communications to troops in the battlefield. As the space industry introduces new capabilities for faster and lower cost connectivity, DoD will be looking to SMC — or the SDA if it comes to fruition — to bring the latest space technology into the military.

Tom Becht, interim director of the military satellite communications directorate at SMC, said more attention is being paid to the ground segment of space programs. “SMC traditionally does the big shiny satellite first, then realizes they don’t have a way to control it, builds the ground system, and eventually gets to the user terminals,” Becht said at Global MilSatcom.

SMC is now reversing the process in a program called Protected Anti-jam Tactical Satcom that seeks to provide secure communications to combat troops. It is first developing the waveforms, modems, terminals and ground stations before moving on to the satellites. It could be a few years before we know if this approach works but it has to be tried, as DoD made it clear that the status quo will not be acceptable.

Ryals said the need to focus on the ground piece was a clear message from the recently completed Wideband Communications Services Analysis of Alternatives study.

Another shift happening in military space is the transfer of responsibility for the procurement of commercial satellite communications services from the Defense Information Systems Agency to the Air Force Space Command. This was a congressionally mandated management shakeup as military leaders were unhappy with DISA’s support to operators.

Clare Grason, division chief for satellite communications at DISA, will be reporting directly to Air Force Space Command starting in December. Speaking at Global MilSatcom, Grason said the goal is to “transform how we acquire commercial satcom.”

One example of why change is needed: If DoD buys commercial bandwidth but the users don’t have the right type of terminal, that causes a lot of problems for forces in the field who want to be able to roam among different satellite providers or constellations.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, is preparing to submit a legislative proposal in December and a budget request in February to establish a Space Force. With Congress deeply divided, the path forward for the new military branch is murky but the national security space enterprise is starting to make adjustments, whether a Space Force becomes a reality or not.


Sandra Erwin

 

Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.