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The holy grail of military communications networks? Airbus says it’s working on it
A cyber-secure network of air, space and ground communications systems that delivers huge amounts of bandwidth anywhere in the world has been a long and frustrating pursuit of the U.S. military.
Defense contractors for years have floated ideas for how to build the elusive “combat cloud” bringing together the latest and greatest communications technology. But the challenge has been tougher than imagined. Airbus says it is a few steps closer to making it happen.
I sat down last week with David Kingdon Jones of Airbus Defense and Space at the Farnborough International Airshow outside London. He oversees a project called “Network for the Sky” that combines military and commercial technologies to form a single global mesh network. This would allow aircraft and other platforms to be part of a high-speed connected battle space.
TURNING CONCEPT TO REALITY It’s a complex project, and it’s important to separate aspiration from actuality, Kingdon Jones warned. The idea is to offer the same seamless experience that people have with their cellphone when it switches from one network to another or from 4G to Wi-Fi without realizing it, “but with the reliability and cybersecurity standards of military communications.”
Obviously this will not happen overnight but some of the pieces are starting to come together. An early version of a “combat cloud” that is interoperable between aircraft, satellites, command centers and units on the ground or at sea is being tested in Spain from an Airbus tanker aircraft.
HOW THIS THIS IDEA COME ABOUT As the prime contractor for the U.K. military’s Skynet communications satellites, Airbus heard from officers in the field about their desire for more capable networks and information systems. “We need aircraft to be able to talk to each other, manage huge amounts of data,” said Kingdon Jones. “We won’t get there in one jump, or it would have been done already.”
The “proof of concept” is running on an A330 multi-role tanker transport. The first full version of the network in the sky will be completed by the end of 2020. “Then you have to keep going for years,” he said.
A network that connects the entire battle space
will happen “incrementally.”
David Kingdon Jones, program manager, Airbus Defense and Space
The A330 tanker has links to combat aircraft, connectivity to satellite links and the ability to relay information to piloted aircraft, drones and land forces. Airbus wants to work with all commercial satcom operators “whether they’re doing pure bandwidth services or managed services,” he said. “You have to be flexible. And a lot of industrial partnering is needed.”
Will users have to buy new terminals to use this network? It remains to be seen, said Kingdon Jones. “We’re trying to reuse legacy equipment as much as possible. And we’re interested in providing an interface into the rest of the network.”
The system will be offered to all NATO countries. The only user so far is the U.K. Ministry of Defence but there is still no “program of record.” The future of this network, like everything else in the defense business, depends on militaries making financial commitments for the long haul.
KEY DEVELOPMENTS IN U.S. NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROGRAMS
U.S. Strategic Command is now solely in charge of the classified communications system that keeps the president connected to military forces during a nuclear event — the nuclear command, control and communications systems, or NC3. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was concerned that NC3 was not under a single chain of command. This is a problem because NC3 needs to be modernized in the coming years and there is still no clear plan for how to do that.
NC3 will be high on the agenda of STRATCOM Commander Gen. John Hyten. He said Mattis wanted a single officer responsible for NC3, as opposed to the “committee-like” structure that has existed so far. Air Force Global Strike Command so far has managed the Air Force’s portion of NC3 — about 70 percent of the 62 air, space and ground systems that make up the system. Modernization will be a top priority. When nuclear weapons systems now in development become operational — like the the B-21 bomber, a new long-range cruise missile, a new ICBM and the Columbia-class submarines — they will have modern communications technology and have to plug seamlessly into the NC3 architecture.
FUTURE ICBM TAKING SHAPE
Boeing and Northrop Grumman have presented design options to the U.S. Air Force for a new intercontinental ballistic missile that will be part of the nation’s nuclear triad. The companies are pitted in a head-to-head competition to build hundreds of ICBMs that will replace decades-old Minuteman 3 missiles. Both firms recently submitted what is known as “trade studies” to help the Air Force draft program requirements. Later this year the Air Force is scheduled to begin a “system functional review” that is required in major weapon acquisitions. An estimated $80 billion program, the GBSD is considered a “must win.” The stakes also are high for engine suppliers. Each missile is powered by three solid-propellant rocket motors, and only two companies in the United States are able to produce these large rocket motors: Aerojet Rocketdyne and Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (formerly Orbital ATK). Aerojet has warned the Air Force and Congress that it needs at least one third of GBSD solid rocket motors production work to remain a viable supplier.
SENATE PANEL TARGETS AIR FORCE SPACE LAUNCH BUDGET
The Senate Appropriations Committee defense subcommittee signed off on its version of the defense appropriations bill for fiscal year 2019 a couple of weeks ago. The bill is awaiting full Senate vote. For the space industry, a surprising move by SAC-D was a $303 million cut to Air Force budget lines for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. This would affect the STP-4 mission scheduled for April 2021. It is a DARPA “Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites” vehicle made by Maxar’s SSL division that would be flown to geosynchronous orbit. According to the Air Force, in order to meet this launch date, a contract must be in place by April 2019. The explanation cited in the SAC-D report: “restore acquisition accountability” and “STP-4 early to need” suggests the committee lacks confidence in the Air Force’s planned schedule for launching this mission. The House defense appropriations version of the bill did not include this cut. So this will have to be negotiated in an upcoming conference, likely in August. The Air Force will have a chance to make its case. Stay tuned.
INTERNATIONAL AIR CHIEFS WANT TO TALK SPACE
During a recent gaggle with defense reporters, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said there are talks about possibly having a space-focused international air chiefs conference next year at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. This idea had been brought up before and Goldfein supports it. There is some preliminary planning under way as this would be a significant effort, he said. The goal is to invite “all my fellow air chiefs globally to come to Colorado Springs in April for the Space Symposium for an air chief conference focused on space,” Goldfein said.
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