WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is looking to bolster the protection of its wideband communication satellites as interference and deliberate jamming become more commonplace and problematic.
On Feb. 10, the Air Force issued a draft request for proposals for terminal modems that support a newly developed protected tactical waveform transmitted through its Wideband Global Satcom satellites.
The modems would be featured in a demonstration that could happen as early as 2018 as part of a long-term strategy to better protect U.S. military communications traffic carried over WGS or commercial satellites. The service has requested more than $125 million for the activity in 2016, up from about $43 million in the current-year budget.
The Air Force said it was looking for six terminal modems that would support the protected waveform. In theory, the new modems could be swapped out with modems on existing WGS and commercial terminals, a far less expensive proposition than building new terminals.
The solicitation was issued less than a week after the Air Force asked WGS prime contractor Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, California, to develop additional anti-jam capabilities for the satellites. The upgrade program, announced Feb. 5 on the Federal Business Opportunities website, would apply to the four satellites in the series, WGS 7 through WGS 10, that have not yet launched.
Although the Air Force operates a highly secure satellite system, dubbed Advanced Extremely High Frequency, most military communications traffic is handled by WGS and commercial satellite systems, both of which are vulnerable to jamming.
Senior Defense Department leaders have said the jamming problem is growing. In a Feb. 9 speech here, Navy Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said, “Multiple countries have developed and are frequently using military jamming capabilities designed to interfere with satellite communications and GPS.”
Haney said Strategic Command in early February held a “Joint Space Doctrine and Tactics Forum” to discuss weaknesses in the Defense Department’s space capabilities. Among the solutions, he said, were “different ways to enhance existing satellite communication capabilities in contested and congested environments.”
Most of the publicly disclosed work to date has focused on WGS, the backbone of the military’s satellite communications fleet. In its Feb. 5 notice, the Air Force said it planned to award Boeing a sole-source contract to develop improved anti-jamming technologies and that the work that would run through 2018.
The Air Force said it believes Boeing is uniquely capable of performing the work, but nonetheless invited companies that believe otherwise to respond by Feb. 20.
WGS is a 10-satellite program, but Boeing officials believe there is interest — from both the Defense Department and internationally — in building two more satellites. However, there is no money in the Air Force’s latest five-year budget projection to cover that procurement.
In a Feb. 11 email, Enrico Attanasio, Boeing’s WGS program manager, said, “The government has indicated that future satellites are still possible, with potential improvements for additional anti-jam capabilities.” These capabilities, he said, would be more advanced than what Boeing is being asked to develop for the seventh through 10th satellites.
Capt. Chris Hoyler, an Air Force spokesman, said in a Feb. 10 email that WGS is a 10-satellite production program and that the service would continue to look for the best way to acquire future wideband communications capabilities.