The subject of defense can be overwhelming, but Wallis Laughrey, the vice president of space systems within Raytheon’s Space and Airborne Systems business, says he can’t recall an era where the role of satellite in U.S. defense strategy was more important. And that’s saying a lot, considering he’s already lived through so many major shifts across the Department of Defense (DOD) throughout his roles with the organization, as well as Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Air Force.
“It’s really exciting to see all of the interest that’s in space right now, and it’s very daunting to look at some of our adversaries, knowing how much we rely on space,” says Laughrey. “So then the question becomes, what technologies can we bring to bear to make our systems more resilient against bad actors?”
Laughrey’s sentiments — and questions — are frequently shared among competitors, analysts, and other stakeholders. While the topic of defense is complex, with multiple moving parts steeped in unpredictability, the potential role of satellite technology is enormous. The current U.S. administration’s pledge to increase spending on military capability promises an array of opportunities and activities in the coming months, as the groundwork is laid for defense in 2019 — and not just well-known organizations like Raytheon.
However, we’re also going to be inundated with challenges, including but not limited to: launching the right mix of satellites, building the right support systems, boosting security, and affording state-of-the-art communication systems.
Given the assumed direction of the new U.S. administration, the activities of international partners and rivals, and the evolution of satellite technology, we’re poised for an interesting 12 to 18 months, to say the least.
The Next Frontier of Defense Opportunities
As the satellite industry sets its sights on 2019, one thing is certain: The need for better, faster, more secure, and cost-effective military satellite technology has never been greater.
Ask Mark Calassa, vice president of operations for Lockheed Martin’s Military Space business, about the future of military satellite and he’s quick to invoke three C’s of space — “congested, contested and competitive” — the infamous descriptors uttered in 2011 by Gregory L. Schultz, then deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy for the DOD.
“I’ve seen a lot of shifts across the Department of Defense and I think the biggest change … is that we’ve seen a lot of rhetoric around advanced threats, around systems that space and airborne [forces] can detect,” says Calassa. “The government and our customers are realizing they need new capabilities.”
In an Aug. 23, 2017 speech in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Gen. Raymond, Commander of Air Force Space Command (AFSC), who also spoke at the CyberSat Summit in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 8, 2017, emphasized the need to effectively operate across multiple war-fighting domains simultaneously. “Our potential adversaries are either global or trans-regional, they are not confined to lines on a map,” Raymond told an audience at the Airfare Association’s Lance P. Sijan Chapter’s Multi-Domain Command and Control Symposium. “Space and cyberspace will not only support operations on air, land, and sea, but air, land, and sea will also support operations in space and cyberspace.”
During his speech, Gen. Raymond also called for stronger partnerships and agile acquisition programs to ensure AFSPC’s ability to provide space and cyberspace effects to the warfighter.
“We are working hard to strengthen our partnerships with the intelligence community, commercial space industry, and our allies,” he said. “Multi-domain command and control systems must be coalition friendly.”
Given this urgent assessment, it’s not so surprising that the current administration has ramped up its commitment to defense in its 2018 budget, which totals $7.75 billion in military space alone. The budget includes significant investments in space control missions and space situational awareness to weather and protected communications platforms. It is a significant increase over the FY 2017 budget, and includes a request for $95 million to fund the wideband Analysis of Alternatives (AOA) and final assembly and testing of WGS 10, currently the last planned satellite in the constellation,Via Satellite reported previously. It also includes funding of Pathfinders, the Air Force contract experiments meant to improve how the DOD buys commercial satellite services.
Another signal that the space — and the satellite industry — will play a more significant role in mitigating threats is President Trump’s decision to re-establish the National Space Council through an executive order.
A rise in funding and development activities means more opportunities will open up for established satcom players, as well as new entrants to the field with the right technology at the right time.
For example, there have been a lot of developments on the commercial side with the rise of small satellites and the miniaturization of electronic components, which the satellite industry has benefitted from, notes Bill Ostrove, space systems market analyst for Forecast International.
“The military has been trying to take advantage of those advancements on the commercial side,” says Ostrove. “It’s definitely creating some new opportunities for new entrants to move into that military marketplace. For example, there’s an army program called Kestrel Eye, which aims to develop a network for small satellites. Some companies working on that are Maryland Aerospace and Spaceflight Industries. These are names you haven’t seen them in military space market before.” [See Sidebar: Small Satellites Play Bigger Role in Future Defense Strategies].
Calassa also notes that security will play a more significant role in space technology development, as the DOD has been very vocal that it needs more capacity, more affordability and more resiliency.
“The ability to move more quickly and address emerging, or evolving threats, is going to be key for the United States,” says Calassa. “Twenty years ago, no-one thought about hacking into your system or your network, but now that’s a reality and it’s considered fair game in any system.”
On the plus side, “we’re going to see a lot of innovation — anything from large satellites to small satellites to cube satellites,” he adds. “And we’re well positioned for that.”
Challenges and Uncertainties
While the U.S. government’s budget signals an influx of opportunities for satcom, the defense industry is shifting between a sense of urgency and a mode of “hurry up and wait” as it bides its time, waiting for specific direction, says Brad Grady, senior analyst at NSR, and author of the consultancy’s Government and Military Satellite Communications report.
“We’re seeing the U.S. military being more involved overseas than it was with the Obama administration, and more involvement means more deployed assets on the field, and more deployed assets means more opportunities for satellite services,” says Grady. “As a result, there’s more optimism in the market than there was approximately a year or two ago. So, there’s more activity happening in the near term, but there’s more uncertainty in terms of the connectivity needs in the future. The commercial industry is built on the ability to plan.”
Much of the uncertainty lies in trying to set up the next generation of communications architecture, considering the U.S. government’s wideband AOA and other factors, according to Grady.
“The commercial and government satcom industry is trying to figure out what comes after,” says Grady. “Is it WGS 1.5, where you do the same thing you did before, just a little bit faster, a little bit better than before? Or is it completely different? And what role does the commercial industry play in that sector? Does the U.S. military have fixed capability gaps when they arrive which commercial satcom should fill? Is commercial capacity part of the entire network? They know they are going to be part of the pie, they’re just not sure how big a slice.”
As Ostrove sees it, although there are a lot of exciting developments in the areas of communications, reconnaissance, and navigation, the U.S. government is at a critical crossroads with military space.
“A lot of the current programs in existence right now, if you look at some of the military satellite programs like Advanced EHF or WGS and SBIRS … a lot of those programs are in the production phase right now,” says Ostrove. “Development is complete and now they’re just … launching. So, where the military is right now, they want to figure out what those next-generation constellations look like so they can start developing that now, so they can be ready to launch in the early to mid 2020s.”
According to the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which designs, builds, launches, and operates space reconnaissance systems and capabilities in response to national intelligence priorities and requirements set by mission partner agencies, one of the biggest current challenges is resiliency and space protection.
There’s also the massive issue of cost, which the satellite industry knows all too well.
“The price point is always a challenge between the government always wants more affordability, so being able to find the sweet spot is critical, we also consider the fore factor of speed and velocity, the ability to bring this online,” says Calassa. “With cost and uncertainty as key challenges, we can expect the government to seek a trade capability so they can upgrade in the future on a faster cycle. The trend is to go to shorter cycles so you can keep evolving your technology and keep evolving your capability with the threat.”
And while every technology vertical experiences cost challenges, those challenges aren’t exacerbated by skilled enemies trying to jam signals, for example.
“Anytime you are working with the U.S. government, there are added requirements that are not there for commercial players,” says Ostrove. “The U.S. military wants to make sure it is doing its part to minimize risk, and in order to do that, there’s a lot of extra paperwork, a lot more hurdles that need to be overcome.”
With defense as a national priority in this administration, the possibilities are seemingly as endless as space itself — Raytheon seems ready to capitalize the infamous “c” for “competitive” in 2019.
Raytheon is investing in technologies with “broad applicability to a range of opportunities,” says Laughrey. This includes silicon carbide fast-produced replicated optics, reconfigurable electronics that can drive multiple focal plane arrays, advanced steering mirrors and next-generation cryocoolers.
“In running a business, you try to look at where the future trends are going to bring capabilities to your customers affordably, and I think we’ve done that well,” says Laughrey. “There's lots of discussion going on between Raytheon and our customers around what they need. Our customers are recognizing that they need capabilities in shorter timeframes. So, for the industry, the challenge is: how do we bring technologies in a managed risk way that balances speed of delivery and mission assurance?”
Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, is busy building a $350 million facility that will produce next-generation satellites on the company's Waterton Canyon campus near Denver. The new Gateway Center is slated for completion in 2020, and is being designed to accommodate what Lockheed Martin sees as a rapidly changing landscape, where ground and satellite are no longer separate considerations.
“It’s not just about the satellite,” says Calassa. “It’s about what you’re trying to do. We’re looking at it from a broader perspective.” VS