It is now 65 years since Arthur C. Clarke first advanced the idea of utilizing geostationary satellites as communications nodes, and few users have benefited more from Clarke’s vision than the U.S. military. For all of our advances in fiber and other new technologies, communications satellites remain the one sure way of linking together military units scattered around the globe. Thus, with every passing year, the joint force grows more dependent on the connectivity afforded by satcom. So does everyone else.
However, the military has a problem that other users do not. Its satellite links are subject to jamming, interception and other disruption by adversaries who know how dependent the joint force has become on continuous connectivity in the age of networked warfare. Such connectivity enables big gains in situational awareness, command coordination and other areas, but in locations where communication depends heavily on satellite links, loss of signals or doubts about the security of transmissions can greatly degrade joint-force effectiveness.
This concern typically surfaces in open sources as a discussion about how much military traffic travels on leased commercial satcom transponders. Commercial satellites are designed mainly for private users, and seldom incorporate security features to guard against jamming or other deliberate methods of disruption. Today, about 80 percent of military traffic utilizing orbital nodes moves through commercial satcom.
The good news is that with the introduction of a new generation of military spacecraft, such as the U.S. Air Force Wideband Global Satcom, a much larger portion of defense communications will be able to utilize orbital nodes under military control. The bad news is that most such transmissions still will not be well protected against jamming, interception or nuclear effects. That requires investment in particular technologies that significantly raise the cost of each spacecraft.
Today, the main orbital conduit for protected communications is the Milstar 2 constellation, which permits the military to send about 1 percent of its transmissions through nodes with protection against jamming. Milstar 2 was a highly successful program — it met all of its performance requirements, was delivered on time and cost less than expected. But military planners estimate that at least 15 percent of defense communications moving through orbital nodes in a major conflict will need to be protected, and that is far beyond what Milstar 2 can deliver.
To fill the gap in protected communications, the defense department initiated a Milstar successor in 2001 called the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite. Since AEHF has much more carrying capacity than Milstar 2 and can be accessed using many more terrestrial terminals, the portion of military communications protected against jamming, interception and electromagnetic pulse will leap to about 7 percent during the early years of the next decade. But because that still is not enough to meet wartime needs and AEHF left many disadvantaged or mobile users unserved, the Pentagon began researching a more capable system the same year AEHF commenced development: the Transformational Communications Satellite system, or T-Sat.
T-Sat would have enabled the joint force to meet all of its protected communications needs in wartime, while serving a variety of other desirable purposes, by introducing a high-capacity “Internet protocol” constellation with laser cross-links. Conceptually, it was a technological marvel, but costs were high and the political system never fully embraced the program. Nonetheless, policymakers were determined to press forward, and so they made provisions for prematurely terminating AEHF.
Thus, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates decided to kill the T-Sat program in April 2009, planners had to scramble to find some alternative means of providing the military with protected communications in the future. The first, indispensable step was to buy two more AEHF spacecraft so that a full constellation could be fielded to replace the aging Milstar birds. But beyond that, the path forward still is not clear. With military use of satcom links continuing to rise, the joint force faces the prospect of a 75 percent shortfall in meeting protected communications needs by 2020.
There basically are three options for dealing with this gap in capabilities. One is to begin evolving the AEHF architecture to provide higher volume, more flexible protected communications. The second is to start a new “son-of-T-Sat” program. The third is to pray the joint force never faces an enemy more technologically adept than the Taliban. Although the latter option seems to be influencing much of what Pentagon policymakers say and do these days, it is not a prudent planning assumption. That leaves a choice between evolving AEHF or a new start.
The smart thing to do would be to begin inserting new capabilities into AEHF as soon as possible while assessing the feasibility of a successor. If policymakers wait several years to decide which path to pursue — as currently planned — many of the skills associated with developing the AEHF satellites will slip away. Those skills are likely to be needed, because even if the decision is made to pursue a successor, the replacement is unlikely to be operational until after 2025. The joint force may require much higher volumes of protected communication long before that, so evolving AEHF to enhanced performance levels turns out to be a necessary part of any solution that minimizes danger to our warfighters.
What the government must not do is mill around for years before making any decisions. That’s what Washington did after the Milstar 2 constellation was completed, and it is the main reason so little protected communications capability is available today. AEHF will greatly improve the situation as it reaches orbit over the next few years, but a complete fix requires evolving the baseline system to improved performance levels. If we wait 15 or 20 years to orbit something substantially better, America could lose its next war against a technologically capable adversary.
Loren Thompson is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute.