USAF prepares to launch billion-dollar communications satellite while it studies future alternatives

by

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 27, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

The U.S. Air Force is planning an October launch for AEHF-4, the fourth of the Advanced Extremely High Frequency constellation of nuclear-hardened classified communications satellites used by the military to plan air strikes, transmit secret mission plans and coordinate operations around the world, including a nuclear war.

The Pentagon has committed to buying two more of the jam-resistant satellites from Lockheed Martin Space Systems, but it is still unclear whether the program will continue beyond six satellites. The Defense Department and the Air Force have debated for years whether to keep buying more AEHF-like systems or move in a different direction, perhaps to lower-cost options offered by the private sector. The Government Accountability Office estimated the current price of AEHF is about $1.3 billion per satellite.

Lockheed Martin shipped AEHF-4 aboard a C-5 Galaxy aircraft July 27 from Sunnyvale, California, to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida. There it will undergo the final checkout, be fueled and prepared to be married up with the Atlas 5 launch vehicle.

Satellite operators are watching programs like AEHF for signs that the Air Force is going to follow through on the rhetoric they have heard for years about making greater use of commercial technology. Many executives remain skeptical. “We’re quite keen to see how that translates into capabilities, versus just the AEHF program of record,” said Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, senior vice president at the global satellite communications provider Inmarsat Government. “It’s positive that they’re looking at a range of options.”

The AEHF program of record consists of six satellites in geosynchronous Earth orbit. The Air Force says this system provides 10 times the throughput of the 1990s-era Milstar satellites that it’s replacing. Three are in orbit: AEHF-1 was launched in August 2010, AEHF-2 in May 2012, and AEHF-3 in September 2013. Lockheed Martin is under contract to deliver two more AEHF satellites and the mission control segment. The company said in a news release that AEHF-5 and -6 are progressing on schedule.

A forward-looking analysis for what comes after AEHF has been in the works but it could be years before any decisions are made. This program brings to mind other drawn-out efforts to transition military communications systems to next-generation capabilities.

The Air Force has conducted similar “analysis of alternatives” studies for its future wideband communications. The military’s current needs are met by Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) satellites made by Boeing. Air Force officials said the AoA would be completed this summer but no definitive outcome was discussed with the industry, executives said. Congressional committees have expressed frustration by the lack of a long-term wideband communications strategy and, in response, appropriators added $600 million to the Pentagon’s 2018 budget to buy two more WGS satellites, further delaying any transition to commercial services.

Although commercial providers offer a wide range of services at competitive prices, the military values constellations like WGS and AEHF as foreign policy instruments to help build international alliances. The AEHF constellation is used by Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. International partners in the WGS program include Australia, Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and New Zealand.

U.S. Air Force air crew and civilian support specialists load AEHF-4 into a C-5M Super Galaxy transport plane at Moffett Federal Airfield, California, in late July. Credit: U.S. Department of Defense
U.S. Air Force air crew and civilian support specialists load AEHF-4 into a C-5M Super Galaxy transport plane at Moffett Federal Airfield, California, in late July. Credit: U.S. Department of Defense

It is conceivable that, as it did with WGS, Congress will compel the Air Force to keep buying AEHF satellites in the absence of an alternative plan.

Deanna Ryals, chief of the international military satellite communications division at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, said DoD has been studying a future system known as evolved strategic satellite, or ESS, as a possible follow-on to AEHF. ESS would be dedicated to strategic missions such as nuclear command, control and communications. The Air Force would seek to enlist international partners for ESS. “We are looking to add more to AEHF and ESS,” she told an industry conference in June.

Ryals said one of the issues with AEHF is that it’s used for both tactical and strategic missions. To free up capacity for strategic missions, the Air Force wants to move current tactical users of AEHF to a new “protected tactical satcom” system that is now in development.

The protected tactical satcom program so far has focused on developing anti-jam cyber-secure waveforms to be uploaded to commercial satcom systems or to the military WGS network. SMC is evaluating industry proposals for “protected tactical enterprise services” to make the waveform available across commercial systems and over WGS. Users would need modems that run the tactical waveform and can connect into the enterprise. The final phase will be the space segment. SMC projects to field satellites in 2028 or 2029. It is likely to be a mix of purpose-built and commercial satellites, or possibly hosted payloads.

Cybersecurity is at the top of the priority list, said Ryals. U.S. forces and allies must be ready to fight in environments where enemies will deploy jammers and attempt to hack networks.

“That set of users that can afford to be less protected is much smaller today than it was five years ago,” she said. “Protected tactical satcom is our biggest growth area.”

The military’s analysis of what comes after AEHF concluded that “we need to truly segregate out our strategic users” and that tactical users need higher levels of protection.

Whether it’s ESS, AEHF or another system, strategic satellite communications are front and center in the discussions on how to modernize the nation’s nuclear command, control and communications system, known as NC3.

The commander of U.S. Strategic Command Gen. John Hyten is now overseeing the NC3 effort and his recent comments suggest he will push DoD to develop secure but also resilient constellations. The United States cannot afford to take any chances, he said. “China and Russia, have developed the means to disrupt, disable and destroy U.S. assets in space.”