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The Future of Milsatcom Rests on Interoperability

When it comes to the space environment, the crux of the U.S. Armed Forces’ strategy will be improved collaboration with both commercial and international partners.

As the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) nears the final weeks of its wideband Analysis of Alternatives (AOA) study, one element of the government’s shifting priorities has become abundantly clear. When it comes to the space environment, the crux of the U.S. Armed Forces’ strategy will be improved collaboration with both commercial and international partners.

It’s true that we’ve heard this song and dance before. Back in 2010, when President Obama issued an updated National Space Policy, one of its primary objectives was to “purchase and use commercial space capabilities and services to the maximum practical extent.” Since then, the U.S. government has taken some steps toward this goal, such as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency purchasing satellite data from a commercial Earth Observation (EO) company, Spire Global, for the first time. But to say the government has taken advantage of similar partnerships to the “maximum practical extent,” especially for military operations, would be a massive overstatement at the very least.

Now, along with the revival of the National Space Council, the Trump administration is echoing the same priority. And, although it has taken nearly 10 years (in typical bureaucratic fashion), the U.S. government appears to be slowly steering the ship in the right direction. During a trip to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in February, Vice President Mike Pence said the administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal encourages private U.S. space companies to “increase their activity in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), where the government will be a partner and a customer, not a competitor.”

According to Deanna Ryals, chief of the International Programs Division within the Milsatcom Systems Directorate at the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC), the desire to tap into commercial expertise has escalated all the way up the chain of command. “We have to find out how to tap into this unbelievable resource. A big part of our strategy is increasing use of the industrial base here,” she said during a Defense One panel discussing the future of military satcom in March. If the U.S. government can also make use of its international allies’ commercial bases, “the opportunities for partnerships are unlimited,” she added.

Col. George Nagy, chief of the Space Support to Operations Division at the Pentagon, pointed to the ongoing AOA as evidence of the U.S. government’s newfound willingness to collaborate. “’We invited 16 of our allies along with [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] NATO to participate, and we received great feedback from those nations,” he said. Moreover, industry involvement in the analysis is “the most we’ve ever had,” he said. “It really is high time we look at how we bring those capabilities together.”

Contrary to popular belief, integrating commercial capabilities doesn’t actually start in space, but back on Earth. “Fully 75 percent of the costs for wideband enterprise lie on the ground, either in the user terminal segment or with the network enterprise management and control,” Nagy said. As such, he believes it’s critical to plan in interoperability and flexibility from the ground up when constructing new networks.

Ryals also noted that the U.S. government’s incessant habit of classifying everything and anything has thus far hampered its ability to work alongside its allies and partners. This policy concern has existed for years, but came into particularly sharp relief during the email debacle of the 2016 presidential campaigns. At the time, after being lambasted for her handling of emails on a private network server, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton complained that government information is too often overclassified and poorly labeled. According to Ryals, the DOD is now in the midst of figuring out a more efficient system for managing sensitive data. “If we’re building an integrated network, we have to be able to share data. If we can’t do that we’re going to continue to build stovepipe systems,” Ryals said. “I think we’ve got leadership that’s willing to listen to these concerns and I’m hoping we can see some improvements soon.”

Ultimately, the U.S. government wants a military architecture in space that is as resilient or defendable as possible — “something that will degrade gracefully when under stress and not immediately collapse,” as Brian Weeden, director of program planning for Secure World Foundation, described it. Commercial partnerships will not solve all of the issues associated with resiliency, but they will certainly be a part of the “basket of different solutions” it will take to reach a satisfactory level of dominance in this new battlefield, he said.

Douglas Loverro, president of Loverro Consulting and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, also emphasized the importance of having a multitude of resiliency solutions. Architecting a system that will be difficult, if not impossible, for someone to take apart may take at least six elements, he said:

  • disaggregation of dissimilar capabilities onto separate platforms;
  • diversification, or having multiple systems contributing to the same mission;
  • distribution of functions across multiple nodes;
  • deception, or hiding strengths and weaknesses from adversaries;
  • protection such as nuclear hardening;
  • and proliferation of a larger number of spacecraft.

Altogether, effective resiliency in space will require a “combination of steps,” he said.

According to both Nagy and Loverro, the U.S. military is weighing the pros and cons of operating assets in Non-Geostationary Orbits (NGSO), much like the commercial satellite industry is today. Until now, government launches were dictated by economic convenience — that is, launch into GEO because you can cover the entire globe with just four satellites. “It just doesn’t happen to be a very good place to fight from,” Loverro said. “LEO orbits are better because they’re proliferated by nature. They can’t be jammed easily because you can only see the satellite that’s overhead and not the other 4,000.”

How quickly the U.S. government will implement the lessons it has learned from the AOA remains a big question. But with actors like China and Russia catching up to — and in some cases, surpassing — the U.S.’ capabilities in space, the pressure is on. Most likely, the AOA will help guide some of thinking around the next Wideband Global Satcom satellite, WSG 10, set to launch in 2019.

However, during a panel discussion at the SATELLITE 2018 Conference & Exhibition, Spire CEO Peter Platzer urged the U.S. government to transition from just “buying stuff” from commercial partners, such as a single satellite, to buying services. Unfortunately, he said, no easy processes exist just yet to do so. “We need to find a way to give people in the government the ability to spend opex and not just capex,” he said.

The government’s molasses-like procurement process simply isn’t sustainable when satellite technology evolves as quickly as it does, Platzer added. “It’s important we bring the mindset of rapid change on a monthly basis to the people who oversee the security and safety of the people of this country, [so they] realize that taking three months to write a report to make a committee to start making a decision just doesn’t cut it in a world where this technology is becoming rapidly available to everyone,” he said. VS