Doug Loverro, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, speaking March 7 at the Satellite 2016 conference. Credit: SpaceNews/Kate Patterson

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – The Defense Department may abandon its practice of distinguishing between wideband, narrowband and protected communications on its next generation of tactical communications satellites, a top Pentagon official said March 7.

Currently, the Defense Department relies on the Navy’s Mobile User Objective System for its narrowband needs and the Wideband Global Satcom satellites, managed by the Air Force, for its wideband needs.

Doug Loverro, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said during a panel discussion here at the Satellite 2016 conference that a future generation of satellites may not make such a distinction.

“These boundaries don’t exist anywhere. The moment you define a new satellite system these boundaries move all around,” he said. “I think they could very well disappear and then I think we can assess better how we meet all of these needs.”

The Pentagon delivered to Congress last month a study on possible satellite architectures to meet the Defense Department’s protected communications requirements. Officials are set to kick off another study, a much-anticipated analysis of alternatives on wideband communications needs, at the end of the year.

Loverro and Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, have said in recent weeks that the Defense Department will make a decision later this year on the architecture of the next-generation of protected communications satellites.

“If we make that decision the way most of us believe we are going to, it will change the discussion considerably from where we’ve been,” Loverro said.

MUOS-4 preps for shipment to Cape Canaveral for launch. Credit: Lockheed Martin
The Pentagon may not distinguish between narrowband, such as MUOS-4 pictured above, wideband and protected communication on future tactical satellites. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The Pentagon is considering whether to break apart the strategic mission and tactical missions aboard its current generation of Advanced Extremely High Frequency protected communications satellites and placing them on separate satellites. A majority of the Pentagon’s current generation communications satellites (AEHF, MUOS and WGS) are on orbit or awaiting launch, leading to questions about what comes next.

In its latest budget documents, the Air Force planned for substantial evolution of the AEHF program, including a request of $1.3 billion for 2021.

Meanwhile, Loverro also said his office has begun an informal study to more closely work with international partners as the U.S. sketches out its future generations of communications satellites.

Several U.S. partners, including the United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia are considering what to do next to meet their own communication satellites. International partners worked with the United States to build two WGS satellites in exchange for access to the constellation proportional to their investment and contributed to the AEHF satellites.

But this effort would look at involving partners at the earliest stages of a program’s development, he said.

Loverro’s office is examining possibilities for the U.S. and its partners to see if there is a way to align their needs and finances to “marry” two or three nations together for a new system, he said.

“If the Navy strikes in the Pacific, they’re going to be fighting with Japan and Australia and we’re all going to be in the same jamming environment, we’re all going to be in the same communications environment,” he said. “We’re going need to figure out how to do that together.”

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.