Satcom conumdrum: Air Force contemplating right mix of commercial, military satellites

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This article originally appeared in the May 6, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Executives from satellite operators Eutelsat, Hughes, Inmarsat, Intelsat, Iridium Communications, SES, Viasat, Xtar, sat down in December with Air Force Space Command leaders in Colorado Springs to talk about the holy grail of military communications: a seamless network of commercial and government satellites.

A “hybrid” architecture that allows users to tap into commercial and military satellites without knowing the difference has been a much discussed but elusive goal. The military wants to be able to provide forces in the field with satcom terminals that can roam between networks the way consumer devices switch providers when they move between overlapping areas of coverage.

Satellite operators support that vision, but are still waiting for the Air Force to shed light on important details, such as how the architecture would be set up, and how services could be contracted and funded. The hybrid model, for instance, would require the Air Force to buy satellite communications from companies as a “managed service” instead of the preferred bulk purchases of satellite capacity.

At the December meeting, according to industry attendees who spoke with SpaceNews on condition of anonymity, the Air Force said these details still needed to be hashed out. The meeting happened just days after Air Force Space Command officially took charge of the procurement of satellite communications for the Department of Defense. Previously, the Defense Information Systems Agency had been responsible for buying commercial satellite capacity.

The idea of a hybrid commercial-military network has been widely endorsed by DoD and Air Force leaders, although many acknowledge that it is easier said than done. It requires a different contracting approach — buying managed services instead of the traditional satellite leases — as well as investments in new user terminals. With managed services, the government relies on the service providers to manage their satellites’ capacity so it meets demands in the most efficient manner. The Air Force envisions the network would use its own Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) satellites and multiple commercial providers.

Congressional appropriators jump-started the integration of commercial services in the 2019 defense budget by shifting $49.5 million from WGS pathfinder projects — experiments to explore new ways to procure commercial satcom to supplement WGS services — to a new budget line designated for “commercial satcom integration.”

According to budget documents, the funds will be used to begin the “transformation of the Air Force satcom enterprise” so it is responsive to the needs of combatant commanders and other users. But the congressional budget guidance provides no details on how this will be done, leaving it to the Air Force to figure it out. The budget documents say the Air Force will create an “enterprise program of record” that incorporates commercial, military satcom and international partners into a hybrid architecture. The Air Force was directed by appropriators to chart a “satcom enterprise vision.”

At the December meeting with satellite operators, Air Force officials said the commander of Air Force Space Command, Gen. John Raymond, was actively involved in drafting that vision, as well as a concept of operations for how satcom services would be used in the field. They told executives the conversation would continue in February at a Satcom Industry Day in Colorado Springs.

At the February gathering, Air Force leaders talked about unveiling the satcom enterprise vision in April at the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. The schedule slipped, however, as Raymond was tapped to be the commander of U.S. Space Command and needed to attend to other priorities. At a news conference April 11 at the Space Symposium, Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, said the satcom enterprise strategy is “still in development.”

He described the Air Force vision as a “merger, if you will, of traditional military satellite communications functions, from tactical to strategic, and the purchasing of commercial bandwidth to be used by our war fighters around the globe.”

Thompson told reporters to expect a formal rollout of the satcom strategy later this year.

YEARS-LONG STUDIES

The latest effort to map out a future satcom network follows nearly two years of studies that looked at how military and commercial systems could collectively provide a resilient architecture able to withstand cyber attacks and electronic jamming. A so-called wideband analysis of alternatives (AoA) study started in December 2016 and was completed in mid-2018.

One of the goals of the AoA was to identify options to replace and supplement Boeing-built WGS satellites the Air Force began to deploy in 2007 to replace the Cold War-era Defense Satellite Communications System and Global Broadcast Service satellites.

The AoA study was not publicly released, but industry sources said one of the conclusions was that DoD should have a hybrid architecture in order to more easily tap commercial services in addition to WGS.

But the AoA also raised a major concern that could slow the integration of commercial services: DoD does not have a plan or funding to replace thousands of legacy terminals that are not compatible with modern satcom systems.

Thompson said there are anywhere from 130 to 160 satcom terminal types in the military’s inventory. “That’s an area where having a multi capable terminal and reducing the number of different configurations is something that industry is very excited about,” he said. Terminals are one of the issues the satcom strategy will address.

A NEW WGS SATELLITE

Congress may have inhibited the transition to commercial services by adding $600 million to the Air Force’s 2018 budget for the procurement of two more WGS satellites the service did not plan to buy. WGS-10, a $424 million satellite that was supposed to be the last in the series, launched March 15.

WGS-10, shown encapsulated atop the Delta 4 rocket that launched it March 15, was supposed to be the final satellite in the series. Credit: United Launch Alliance
WGS-10, shown encapsulated atop the Delta 4 rocket that launched it March 15, was supposed to be the final satellite in the series. Credit: United Launch Alliance

Air Force procurement officials spent the better part of the past year figuring out how to comply with the congressional mandate, a task complicated by the fact that $600 million is not enough money to buy two WGS satellites, let alone pay for their launch.

The Air Force announced April 19 that it had reached an agreement with Boeing. The “undefinitized contract action” calls for buying one satellite with double the bandwidth and power of WGS-10, Brig. Gen. Steve Whitney, program executive officer for space production corps at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, told SpaceNews in a statement.

WGS-11 will have other advanced features such as “enhanced maneuverability … and more powerful and flexible beams to stop jamming attempts,” he said. Under the $605 million deal, Boeing must propose options for on-orbit delivery. “This strategy is to incentivize Boeing to employ their best commercial practices,” said Whitney. Boeing has included launch as an option in its proposal, he said, and could assist in bringing international partners to WGS to help defray the cost to the U.S. government.

DOD 2020 BUDGET

Satellite executives said they were disappointed that the Pentagon’s 2020 budget request seeks no money for the commercial satcom integration program that Congress created in the 2019 budget last fall.

The bulk of DoD’s $1.4 billion request for satellite communications is for the development of next-generation military payloads, ground systems and satcom terminals.

The budget includes $427 million for the development of two Extremely High Frequency Extended Data Rate payloads for the Enhanced Polar System-Recapitalization program. The payloads, developed by Northrop Grumman, will provide secure communications in the north polar region and will be hosted on Space Norway buses, the first scheduled to launch in 2022.

Other big-ticket items in the budget are $198 million for the Family of Advanced Beyond Line of Sight Terminals made by Raytheon and $278 million for a new satcom system called Protected Anti-Jam Tactical Satcom. The Air Force is developing a Protected Tactical Waveform that will run over a ground control system being developed by Boeing. Design studies are underway for the space segment of the program, called the Protected Tactical System. Options include a new satellite design, a modified commercial bus or a hosted payload.

Rick Lober, vice president and general manager of Hughes Network Systems’ defense and intelligence division, said the protected satcom program has received more attention and funding over the past two years in response to concerns about cyber attacks and electronic threats in space. Hughes is a subcontractor to Boeing for the ground systems that will run the Protected Tactical Waveform.

Industry sources said they expect Congress will again add funding for the commercial satcom integration program, and lobbying efforts already are underway. Executives have gone to Capitol Hill and complained about the Air Force’s rhetoric about commercial services not being matched with resources.

“We’re very concerned,” one executive said. “Absent a specific congressional action, no procurements can be executed without any funding.” And a congressional add-on is far from guaranteed, he added. “In this budget environment we just don’t know.”

CULTURAL INERTIA

Brad Grady, senior analyst at the satellite and space market research firm NSR, said the U.S. military would benefit from a transition to managed network services as satellite operators improve their offerings and prices become more competitive.

Service providers are pouring loads of capacity into the market from their giant high-throughput satellites so “it’s hard to continue the standard paradigm of acquiring megahertz and integrating that into a network.”

Cultural inertia, however, could keep DoD buying bulk satellite leases, Grady said. “We see lots of optimism in the industry about managed services, but we find bulk leasing is still stubbornly growing … they like that model and they think they get a lot of value for their dollars.”

U.S. Army soldiers configure a Hawkeye II 1.2M VSAT terminal during a training exercise in April. Credit: U.S. Army Reserve photo by Capt. David Gasperson
U.S. Army soldiers configure a Hawkeye II 1.2M VSAT terminal during a training exercise in April. Credit: U.S. Army Reserve photo by Capt. David Gasperson

NSR estimates that governments worldwide in 2017 spent about $5 billion on commercial satcom services and terminals, $340 million of which were for bulk satellite capacity leases. DoD does not provide data on its commercial satcom spending but Grady estimated it accounts for a “significant portion” of the total. DoD’s commercial satcom spending includes bulk leases but also a wide range of satellite services and ground equipment used in military operations. NSR projects bulk leases will grow to $470 million by 2027.

In a managed services model, the satellite operator allocates frequencies, beams, power levels, and does dynamic network management functions so the network operates more efficiently and customer demands are better satisfied, Grady said.

DoD faces a tough challenge as it tries to leverage the innovation in the industry. The terminals problem is not insignificant, Grady said. There are efforts underway to upgrade military terminals with flexible modem interfaces so they can roam between satellite providers, but that is so far just a pilot program.

A transition from traditional satcom procurement to managed services is a “very complex problem that takes a long time to solve,” Grady said. “The government has embraced the reality that commercial is here, it’s a solution, and I need to use it. They just need to reduce the friction points in order to do that.”

How and when the hybrid military-commercial satcom network will be built remains an open question. “What we hear from the senior leaders and general officers are all the right words,” a satellite executive said. “When we talk with experts, everyone recognizes the need to evolve this architecture to make it more resilient to threats and take advantage of industry capabilities,” he added.

The problem, he said, is that the “acquisition decisions have not been aligned with that. Absent some decision making, we are not seeing the big changes that have been talked about for so long.”