Army Maj. Gen. John B. Morrison
Army Maj. Gen. John B. Morrison Credit: SpaceNews

The space weapons that U.S. military commanders fear most are not missiles aimed at satellites. Generals worry about a far more likely scenario — enemies launching electronic attacks intended to sabotage communications and navigation systems.

The military’s most heavily protected satellite networks — designed for a showdown against the former Soviet Union — were designed to handle every conceivable threat. But many of the systems the military uses today were acquired over the past 15 years for low-intensity conflicts and were not built to withstand modern electronic warfare.

“We must do something to make our networks more survivable,” said Army Maj. Gen. John B. Morrison, commanding general of the U.S. Army Cyber Center of Excellence.

“In cyber and electronic warfare, we are outgunned in many cases,” Morrison said. An adversary could cripple U.S. military operations simply by denying access to satellites and the means used to transmit and receive data — a key reason why satellite communications systems make attractive targets.

The existing satcom infrastructure was not meant for high-end war, he said. “It was developed many years ago and not updated, it was not ‘threat informed.’”

The issue has drawn increasing attention in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. The Army is reviewing its entire tactical communications strategy and seeking congressional support to reallocate investments in its future budgets. The Air Force also is studying the problem and is working with the satellite industry to figure out how to improve network defenses.

Jamming is the most urgent threat. The technology needed to disrupt many types of satellite signals is commercially available and relatively inexpensive, said a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Satcom systems also are at risk of cyber hackers. “Any data interface in the system is a potential intrusion point, including the antennas on both the satellites and ground stations as well as the landlines connecting ground stations to terrestrial networks,” the CSIS report said.

Longtime suppliers of satellite services have reacted to the military’s demand for secure connections. Executives in interviews with SpaceNews said there is plenty of available technology in the market to make systems more jam-resistant, and are waiting for the Pentagon to define more precisely what it wants.

A major question hanging over the industry is how soon the military will start buying new systems. Another is whether the government will settle for less-than-perfect solutions that can be deployed soon, or choose to wait for more foolproof technology that will take years to develop and might end up being unattainable. This is the type of “risk based” decision that the Pentagon would make based on estimates of enemy capabilities.

The military is “wrestling with the challenge of how to move forward with a robust capability that is affordable,” said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Peter Hoene, now president and CEO of SES Government Solutions, the U.S.-based government sales arm of satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg.

Satellite communications firms have proposed a number of options to give the military more bandwidth and tighter security. A shortage of satellite capacity in government networks means the military will either have to build more spacecraft or buy more services from the commercial industry.

The industry in recent years has ramped up capacity in response to soaring commercial demand but insists that it has more than enough to accommodate military users. The CSIS report mentions that one of ViaSat’s newest communications satellites has a total data throughput capacity of 300 gigabits per second — nearly 100 times that of the U.S. military’s wideband communications satellites known as WGS, or Wideband Global Satcom.

SES has 53 large geostationary communications satellites and last year, through its full acquisition of O3b Networks, gained 12 satellites in medium Earth orbit with government users in mind. So-called MEO satellites are roughly 9,300 kilometers above the surface of the Earth, compared to 36,000 kilometers for geostationary satellites. Less latency — thanks to the lower altitude — means fewer timeouts, Hoene said. The medium-orbit service is being marketed to the military and the intelligence community for cloud-computing applications.

A hot topic these days is the future of the 10-satellite constellation of Boeing-build WGS spacecraft that has become essential to military operations but is overtaxed. The Pentagon in December launched a new study expected to last 12 to 18 months that could inform decisions on what to do next.  “That really just starts the requirements process for a follow-on to WGS,” Hoene said.

A new system would not be ready until at least 2022 or 2024. But companies hope the study will call for interim measures to shore up capacity and anti-jam protection immediately. “The information that comes out of the debate on wideband could be used to make incremental improvements in between now and follow-on systems,” Hoene said. MEO satellites now in service, for example, are more resistant to jamming because they use very narrow spot beams.

“You have to be able to track the satellite and be within the footprint to be able to jam it,” Hoene said. And that helps the operator locate the attacker.

Newer high-throughout satellites, too, are built with narrow spot beams, he said. They have wide beams for traditional users and very narrow spot beams that are tough to jam.

Companies have suggested that the military should “disaggregate” its satcom services across multiple sources. If a WGS satellite or uplink is jammed, the military could switch to a commercial satellite. “Commercial providers have a large ground network of teleports all around the world,” said Bill Reiner, who moved to SES Government Solutions from Boeing’s satellite division last month. “DoD has a lot of ground stations, but if they’re taken down, they would have a large commercial backbone they can move to.”

The industry continues to push the case that diversifying is key to network security. “Let’s not depend on one single satellite like a WGS,” said Rick Lober, vice president and general manager of Hughes Defense and Intelligence Systems. If the military had access to a couple of hundred commercial satellites, that would create a tough problem for the enemy, he observed. “Which one are you going to try to jam or take out?”

The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center is spending tens of millions of dollars testing anti-jam software with new modems that would help protect military and commercial satellites.

Lober said the industry is watching this project closely. “It could be an 80-percent solution” to fill the gap until new satellites are deployed.

The space industry for years has been frustrated by the Pentagon not reaching out to the private sector in the early planning stage of its tactical communications strategy, rather than viewing the industry as an afterthought. “DoD should continue with some of its own specialized satellites,” said Lober. “But make commercial part of the thought process early and not later when you are in a conflict and run out of bandwidth.”

If the Pentagon decides it wants commercial satellites to run on the military Ka band, “that has to be planned for,” Lober said. There are technical and regulatory issues, “it’s not something that can be done as an afterthought.”

One key reason why the military is not taking advantage of low-cost bandwidth and anti-jam technology now available is an outdated procurement process, said Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, senior vice president of Inmarsat Government Services.

“Culture and process are the problems,” she said. “We have steerable military Ka band that can handle protected tactical waveforms, spread over the largest amount of frequencies available and increase resistance to intense jamming.”

If the Pentagon moved to acquire satcom as a service — the same way consumers buy cable — military communications could be made simpler and safer, she said. “There would be less focus on which satellite and which ground stations are needed. They would not have to cobble together a network,” Cowen-Hirsch argued. “It’s a cultural shift more than a technology shift.” Satcom is not that different than telecommunications except the nodes are up in space. “We tend to get enamored with the spacecraft whereas we ought to be looking at the service that it provides.”

Hoene, of SES, said the expectation is that the government will settle for a combination of WGS-like satellites and commercial satellites with different bands. Custom-built military systems take years to build and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, making it inevitable that the Pentagon will increase its reliance on commercial space. The cost of day-to-day network operations also is dramatically lower in the private sector, he said. “When we look at the ownership and operating rights, Intelsat and SES operate fleets of satellites with eight to 10 people at ground stations.” The military requires much larger crews. “That raises questions about affordability in operations,” Hoene said. “We look forward to being involved in the discussions.”

This article originally appeared in the October 23 issue of SpaceNews Magazine. 

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...