LONDON — The U.S. government has agreed to allow allied nations to use the high-performance payload on the U.S. Navy’s next-generation narrowband communications satellite system, which is now expected to enter into full service in the summer of 2016, a U.S. Strategic Command official said Nov. 4.
The decision comes after years of allied complaints, especially from nations that had purchased U.S.-built Joint Strike Fighter aircraft on the assumption that they would be fitted with Mobile User Objective System communications pods.
The policy provides a dose of credibility to the U.S. Defense Department’s long-repeated assertion — especially since the June 2010 U.S. National Space Policy document — that interoperability and capacity sharing with allies is indispensable as all militaries seek to extend their reach while containing costs.
Speaking at the Global Milsatcom conference here organized by SMi Group, Harold Haney, chief of the satellite communications and spectrum management division at U.S. Strategic Command, said the U.S. policy change allowing allied government access to the Wideband Code Division Multiple Access (WCDMA) payload on the MUOS satellites was made quietly in April.
Since then, he said, his office has been discussing access terms with Canada, Australia and other allied governments, and would open a dialogue with Japan and others.
“Yes it has changed,” Haney said of U.S. policy on WCDMA access by U.S. allies. “MUOS was conceived as a U.S.-only constellation. It’s very unusual for us to do that. There was a reason for that — the encryption piece. But we have been given direction, in April, to change that and bring international partners into operations of MUOS. We are moving forward with that.”
Nations that have entered into agreements to purchase the Joint Strike Fighter, and that would be among the first to want access to the MUOS WCDMA capability, are Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea, Turkey and the United Kingdom.
The WCDMA payload accounts for 90 percent of MUOS’s capacity and accounts for its sixteenfold increase in transmission throughput compared with UHF Follow-On satellites it is replacing.
The MUOS satellites also carry a legacy payload similar to — and compatible with — the previous-generation system. Haney said U.S. forces have no intention of abandoning legacy UHF capability anytime soon, especially since the incorporation of ground software that boosts the efficiency of the UHF Follow-On satellites’ 25-kilohertz channels.
More than 67,000 UHF terminals are in service among U.S. military forces, with more than 50 different terminal types, Haney said. While low-speed UHF signals have the advantage of penetrating foliage, rain and urban environments, WCDMA increases the throughput to the equivalent of a 3G cellular connection, offering voice and data connectivity, with a global coverage between 65 degrees north and 65 degrees south latitude.
Since he took his job in 2010, Haney has been promising international audiences that his office was working to open the WCDMA payload to allies.
How quickly the new policy will be followed by specific agreements is unclear, however, in part because of the delays in the WCDMA payload’s availability to ground users.
The four MUOS satellites in orbit were launched between February 2012 and September of this year. A fifth, designed as an in-orbit spare, is scheduled for launch in late 2016.
Difficulties with development of WCDMA MUOS ground terminals have meant the satellites have in effect been flying without providing the advantages they were designed to offer. U.S. forces have been using MUOS’s slower legacy payload while waiting for the availability of WCDMA.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office has pointed to multiple delays and cost overruns in the system, most recently in an April 2015 report, that were tied to difficulties with the new WCDMA waveform.
Haney said he now expects MUOS to be declared fully operational this summer. As recently as February, Defense Department officials had said they expected full operational capability in 2017.
While it is always possible that a new glitch delays the planned in-service date, the system’s required Operational Test and Evaluation phase has just begun and is scheduled for completion in December, Haney said.
The results from this evaluation are scheduled for release in the spring, at which point the Navy, as MUOS’s owner, would advise whether any new issues have arisen.
“We haven’t heard of anything that would be an impediment to achieving operational capability this summer,” Haney said. “We can’t wait to get our hands on it.”
MUOS users are divided into seven principal priority areas, each with multiple levels. A total of 41 user types are ranked from Priority 1 access by senior political officials down to Defense Department support to a county sheriff’s office.