Construction workers at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, move a protective enclosure in February as part of transition to new terminals that work with Wideband Global SATCOM satellites. Credit: U.S. Defense Department

This op-ed originally appeared in the Sept. 10, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Over the past two decades as the U.S. government has outgrown its purpose-built military communication satellites, it has turned increasingly to commercial sources of satcom infrastructure, including commercial high-throughput satellite (HTS) networks. This arrangement has worked well so far. However, as the military sometimes must operate in contested environments, they will need more resilient communications system to overcome any intentional interference.

Today, the various commercial and military satellite communications (satcom) systems operate as closed networks. Soon, interoperability among satellite systems will become necessary to build a defense communications infrastructure that can meet the growing bandwidth and resiliency requirements of the military.

From its launch in 2007, the Wideband Global Satellite (WGS) constellation was a major upgrade compared to the preceding Defense Satellite Communications System (DCDS-3) satellites. However, this military-owned satellite constellation will soon become exhausted by demand because it was designed in the early 2000s, before bandwidth-hungry video and cloud applications became pervasive. Commercial HTS has made for an effective interim solution with 100 times the capacity and, subsequently, a lower cost-per-bit.

New commercial satcom technologies on the horizon are worth watching. The Department of Defense (DoD) is paying close attention to where the commercial industry is going with the current “Space Boom” driving more funding and innovation. Not surprisingly, the low Earth orbit (LEO) constellations, such as OneWeb, are garnering interest based on their potential for global coverage, lower latency connections and space-based redundancy.

Together, all these satcom systems – military, commercial HTS and LEO – promise greater resiliency for uninterrupted communications, especially in contested environments. However, to reach the full potential of these systems in the future, they will require system interoperability, an imminent necessity, especially for military operations.

U.S. Marine Corps' VSAT terminals undergo evaluations at Camp Pendleton, California, in 2017. Credit: U.S. Defense Department
U.S. Marine Corps’ VSAT terminals undergo evaluations at Camp Pendleton, California, in 2017. Credit: U.S. Defense Department
U.S. Marine Corps’ VSAT terminals undergo evaluations at Camp Pendleton, California, in 2017. Credit: U.S. Defense Department

The reality is that near-peer militaries across the globe are investing more into electronic warfare and signals intelligence technology. Commercial satcom continues to hold tremendous potential for helping keep warfighters and mobile assets connected. An effective and integrated communications infrastructure will better enable DoD’s various global communications to operate over both military and commercial satellites, management systems, gateways, waveforms, and terminals to increase mission assurance.

The recent pilot study led by the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center to help inform the Wideband Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) examined how to enable interoperable satcom systems for government applications. Through a Flexible Modem Interface (FMI), the military can benefit from multiple technology and service options that will yield unprecedented operational flexibility.

The initial phases of pilot studies by the U.S. Air Force – known as the Pilot 1 and Pilot 2 studies – established that the principle technology for an FMI exists and could make various commercial and military systems connect at the IP layer or possibly at lower layers in the future using software definable modem technology. Specifically, in Pilot 2, commercial providers are ready to demonstrate and deliver a hardware and architecture prototype solution for evaluation of interoperable satcom capabilities.

Funding provisioned by Congress in the recently approved National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) may facilitate the next and final phase of the pilot studies, Pilot 3. This phase would provide a test environment for the technology prototyped in Pilot 2 by commercial participants. Pilot 3 is an essential next step to ensuring the FMI conception remains a priority as emphasis around more resilient systems for contested environments continues to grow.

The DoD should expect more interoperability from commercial providers in the coming years. This includes more than just interoperable systems among different geosynchronous satellites but also interoperability among various LEO and medium Earth orbit (MEO) constellations using electronically steered antennas that will track and switch between satellites.

The completion of the AoA studies and validating the benefits for FMI with a prototype Global Network Operations Center (GNOC) must be a priority as the DoD pursues more strategic and capability-driven technology investments in the coming years. The military’s capacity to easily, if not automatically, maneuver between services is essential for a robust defense communications infrastructure. The FMI prototype can be a cornerstone to building a future of interoperability and dramatically heightened resiliency in addition to helping solve the “legacy terminal investment” problem identified by the DoD as we move to the future.

Rick Lober is Hughes Network Systems’ vice president and general manager for defense and intelligence systems. Rajeev Gopal is a Hughes senior technical director for advanced systems.

Rick Lober is vice president and general manager of Hughes Network Systems’ defense and intelligence systems division.