U.S. Air Force Moving Ahead on Satellite Modems for Protected Communications

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force plans to release a final request for proposals in the coming weeks for modems compatible with a new protected tactical waveform that the service developed as part of a long-term strategy to bolster its ability to provide protected communications via military or commercial satellites.

Multiple contract awards for the modems could be awarded as early as September, industry sources said. Development is expected to take about two years.

In theory, the new modems could be swapped out with modems on existing Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) and commercial terminals to process the protected waveform, a far less expensive option than building new terminals, which Air Force officials often cite as the most expensive element of satellite communications programs. The 10-satellite WGS program is the backbone of the Air Force’s satellite communications fleet, providing all but the most sensitive or critical services.

The Air Force hopes to demonstrate the transmission of the protected waveform using production-representative terminals via both WGS and commercial satellites in 2018, service officials have said.
On March 13, the Air Force, which is leading the joint effort with the Navy and Army, announced plans to issue a solicitation for the waveform’s field demonstration no sooner than by the end of March.

The modems will be expected to work on a plug-and-play basis with six commonly used Defense Department satellite terminals, the notice, published on the Federal Business Opportunities website, said. Those terminals include: the Navy Multiband Terminal; three Army terminals including the Warfighter Information Network — Tactical Point of Presence, or WIN-T; the Air Force’s Ground Multiband Terminal; along with an airborne wideband test terminal. Defense Department officials routinely cite the Army as the largest single user of satellite communications among all the services.

AEHF satellite
Eventually, the Air Force hopes to make the protected waveform available through some terminals that communicate with the service’s highly secure Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites (above). Credit: U.S. Air Force

Eventually, the Air Force hopes to make the protected waveform available through some terminals that communicate with the service’s highly secure Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites, industry sources said.

The Defense Department is also studying how to make the waveform available to U.S. allies. Australia invested approximately $700 million in the sixth WGS satellite, for example, while the ninth satellite in the series is being built thanks to an investment by a five-country consortium of Denmark, Canada, New Zealand, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

Facing rising demand for satellite bandwidth and a growing problem with signal jamming, the Air Force has funded a series of tests to evaluate alternatives for dramatically lowering the cost of delivering secure services via both commercial and military satellites. Although the Air Force’s AEHF system is the gold standard for protected communications, most military traffic is handled by WGS and commercial satellite systems, both of which are vulnerable to jamming.

The Air Force included about $132 million for the protected tactical waveform development effort and associated demonstration program in its budget request for fiscal year 2016. The money is included in the AEHF program’s space modernization initiative account.

The protected tactical waveform “is the future waveform for tactical missions,” researchers from the Aerospace Corp., a federally funded not-for-profit research center that provides engineering advice on U.S. military space programs, wrote in the fall 2014 issue of its Crosslinks magazine. The Aerospace Corp. is working with the Defense Department on the waveform project.

Industry officials also continue to make progress testing the waveform. Most recently, Intelsat General Corp., the government services division of satellite operator Intelsat, announced March 16 it had successfully validated the waveform’s performance on the company’s high-throughput digital payload. That means the military can potentially use Intelsat’s new Epic high-throughput satellites, which are slated to begin launching early next year, for protected communication.