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US MilSatCom Strategy Under the New Administration

As the U.S. Air Force forges ahead in crafting its next-generation wideband space architecture, and the Trump Administration seeks approval for a FY ’18 budget with strong increases in space defense spending, Via Satellite spoke with Air Force strategists, procurement decision makers and satellite industry government experts about how they see the DoD’s strategic communications priorities unfolding in a constantly evolving threat environment.

Russia’s cyber-interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election represents one of the starkest examples of how nations will wage war in the coming decades — and the critical importance of infrastructure, including satellite and space capabilities.

With a year to go before the Air Force completes its Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) — the next-generation wideband space architecture that will follow Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) — Pentagon and Air Force strategists are looking outward to new models as they redefine what it will take to be a step ahead of increasingly sophisticated adversaries. What will the new milsatcom strategy look like? How much will the military embrace commercial models of innovation and procurement to support the military’s operational readiness at less cost?

“It is crucial that the U.S. military improve their readiness and overall space resilience,” says Pete Hoene, president and CEO of SES Government Solutions.

Even as the U.S. deals with unprecedented cyber-attacks on infrastructure, a more aggressive North Korea, and an increase in ISIS-related attacks against the West, the world’s largest military power also must balance the need for protected satcom, anti-jam capabilities and resiliency with escalating data and capacity needs.

A Look at the FY’18 Budget

The FY ‘18 budget, which totals $7.75 billion in military space alone, includes significant investments in everything from space control missions and space situational awareness to weather and protected communications platforms.

The budget includes a request for $95 million to fund the wideband AoA and final assembly and testing of WGS 10, currently the last planned satellite in the constellation. It also includes funding of Pathfinders, the Air Force contract experiments meant to improve how the DoD buys commercial satellite services.

“The FY ’18 budget represents a pretty significant increase compared to FY ’17,” notes Bill Ostrove, a space market analyst with Forecast International. Ostrove explains that 2018 reflects an upswing in spending “driven by the needs of the military,” but it’s a far cry from the $9.3 billion spent on military space in 2012, and is $500 million less than was originally projected in the 2017 budget. “We are at a crossroads in military satellite programs — Research and Development (R&D) spending went up 15 percent in 2017 and 5 percent in the FY ’18 request,” he says.

Clearly, the space sector has become a more contested environment than ever, requiring new approaches and closer partnerships to better defend against attacks that are increasingly focused on space assets.

“The funding is an acknowledgement that space is more important than ever to the military and that is not going to change — in fact it is only going to increase,” says Myland Pride, Intelsat General's director of government and legislative affairs. “With few exceptions, leaders in both the DoD and both parties in Congress recognize the critical enabling capabilities brought by space assets, recognize the changing space environment, and want to address near-term gaps to improve capabilities and make them more resilient.”

With the WGS system and Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) approaching end-of-service life in coming decades, the Air Force has been focused on a modernization strategy that includes an in-depth AoA to define future requirements to accomplish the country’s warfighting, security and disaster response missions globally. Officials at the Air Force Space Command Headquarters indicate that the AoA is on schedule to be completed by summer 2018, followed by “internal DoD staffing of the final report that will inform future resourcing decisions." It’s a monumental task with a lot at stake, and that’s why everyone has a perspective on what needs to happen, both inside and outside of government.

“We can’t do this alone. Commercial partners are critical to the success,” says Col. Shawn Fairhurst, deputy director, Strategic Plans, Programs and Requirements and Analysis, Headquarters, Air Force Space Command, noting that the Air Force works to leverage its national security space capabilities across the DoD, the intelligence community and with civil agencies like NOAA and NASA as necessary. “It’s a full, national effort for us to build a resilient space enterprise.”

The Pivot Point

SpaceX’s recent launch of a payload for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is perhaps an indicator of how much has changed, and the potential opportunities for commercial players to have an impact on U.S. MilSatCom strategy.

“The opportunity for the commercial sector is, in a way, the pivot point because there are self-identifying opportunities that now the United States military can take advantage of versus in the past, the U.S. had to come up with the idea and then the commercial would go execute it. This is very exciting,” Fairhurst says.

Eron Miller, chief of the satcom division in DISA’s ComSatcom Center in Network Services, agrees, noting that the U.S. government is interested in all solutions that the commercial market can offer. “Whether it’s a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) high-capacity solution or a Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) high-capacity solution, the new commercial capabilities are providing new opportunities to the Department,” says Miller. He adds that requirements that previously could only be addressed by terrestrial solutions are now good candidates for satellites.

While more frequent and candid sharing and communications between the satellite industry and government has been a positive outcome of the AoA process, Miller believes that changing the way it communicates about requirements with commercial partners could result in more innovative solutions.

For instance, instead of specifying how much bandwidth a mission requires in one location to another, the government would indicate the need to move this much data from point A to point B, and provide the security thresholds, leaving it up to industry to provide a recommended solution.

Key commercial satellite operators have invested billions to position their next-generation systems for U.S. military needs. That’s the goal behind Inmarsat’s Global Xpress offering a “Satcom as a Service” model, notes Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, senior vice president of government strategy and policy at Inmarsat’s U.S. government unit.

Intelsat General Corporation, like Inmarsat, has bet on the military embracing commercial infrastructure, especially with the explosion of the High Throughput Satellite (HTS) market. Intelsat General’s sister company Intelsat recently launched its Epic high-throughput constellation.

Two main drivers of government interest in HTS involve the global spotbeam architecture that supports higher data rates on smaller terminals, and the efficiency benefits of managed services.

Getting the AoA Right

Everyone agrees that future MilSatCom strategy hinges on the outcome of the AoA. “We have to get the AoA right first, and once we determine the wideband solution, we’ve got to get the ground infrastructure right to support it. And lastly, we have to get our requirements right,” says Miller.

“Our biggest challenge is coming to that sweet spot between driving for near-term efficiency and cyber-secured solution sets. We don’t want to make our threshold requirements so great that we remove commercial as a possible solution because our security requirements are greater than what commercial industry has out there. At the same time, we don’t want to put our requirements so low that we are putting our missions at risk,” he explains.

Part of the AoA includes assessing resiliency techniques. These include disaggregation — the separation of multiple missions from one satellite or system and simplifying to a single mission (such as disaggregating the strategic and tactical missions off AEHF). Others include proliferation involving many elements to increase the overall resilience of a system, and distribution, or increasing the options for executing a mission such as having multi-band terminals or smart terminals that can select among multiple satellite options. Then there is reconstitution — the ability to replace a lost asset quickly, such as with rapid launch capability.

Enrico Attansio, executive director of Department of Defense (DoD) and civil programs for Boeing Satellite Systems, says the AoA will help assess whether leasing or owning satellite assets will deliver the best value for the government while ensuring mission success.

“It may cost more to lease or to own to obtain the resilience needed for a particular architecture. However, it would be premature to speculate on the total implementation cost between leasing and owning in advance of the AoA,” he says.

Planning for Capacity - Commercial Role Key

Regardless of the future space architecture, all signs indicate that commercial providers will continue to play a key role in supporting the military’s long-term capacity requirements, but many hope that the AoA will lead to a different model for engagement.

“The capacity available from commercial providers has been growing explosively in the past few years and is likely to continue for the next several years. At the same time, military systems have become more network dependent and rely on greater amounts of data being transmitted. Given those two facts, it seems likely that the DoD will increase the amount of data passed through commercial providers,” says Thomas Becht, milsatcom deputy director for the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC).

He adds that quality-of-service-based managed services being used by many providers pose an “incompatibility” for many DoD platforms. The ComSatcom Pathfinder Pilot program is focusing on addressing this incompatibility.

“Besides seeking to enhance compatibility between DoD platforms and commercial systems, SMC is also keenly interested in enhancements to the resiliency of COMSATCOM at all levels,” says Becht. “Protection of the actual satellite and the commercial provider’s network, as well as path diversity, or the ability to smoothly change between providers and satellites if one is compromised, are critical capabilities needed to make ComSatcom a central fixture in DoD architecture.”

A New Mindset

How can the commercial space sector help the government meet situational awareness and defensive capabilities in space where agility and flexibility are a must?

Inmarsat’s Cowen-Hirsch noted that the commercial industry can implement technology significantly faster than the government can in their own operated systems. She highlights the agility the industry brings, the ubiquity of coverage, additional operational flexibility and resilience to the DoD architecture as key advantages. “The government needs to explore what future capabilities the industry has in the pipeline so they can envision how [commercial capabilities] will be relevant to their environments,” she says.

Pride echoes the view of other satellite leaders, noting how the commercial market can inform DoD on best operations and acquisition practices. “Commercial services are not only cost effective, but they will also free up limited military personnel to focus on maintaining U.S. dominance in space and increase resiliency and redundancy to operations,” he says.

Hoene says that the trend is toward “resilience across the board,” which opens up opportunities for hosted payloads for a diverse range of applications, be it protected satcom, Overhead Persistent Infra-Red (OPR) or Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT). His company currently has three hosted payloads on contract with the U.S. government that were implemented “at a fraction of the cost of a dedicated satellite.”

As the Air Force Space Command continues to work toward completion of the AoA and, in the process, seeks new ways to look at the problem, it remains open to bringing in different perspectives, says Fairhurst, noting that “it allows us to look at a problem set through a different lens.”

And while no one yet knows what the final space architecture will look like, Air Force planners agree with what it won’t be: a one-size-fits-all answer. They emphasize that for the United States to meet its national security mission around the world, the next space architecture must be flexible and be able to adapt to fast-changing threats. And, that’s why continued dialogue and collaboration with commercial innovators will be mission-critical.

A Closer Look at Key Military Space Programs in the FY ’18 Budget Request

Below is a snapshot of the next-generation Global Positioning System, GPS 3, and the Space-based Infrared System (SBIRS) being eyed for government funding in 2018, with commentary from SMC on delivery timelines and new capabilities.


Lockheed Martin is on contract for the first 10 GPS 3 space vehicles. The phase two contract award, which is open to competing providers, will be awarded in late 2018 and begin production in 2019. The first satellite is expected to launch in FY 2025. “GPS 3 is the most powerful GPS satellite ever designed and built for the Air Force. We are past our early challenges and are into full production,” says Jeffrey Smith, vice president and general manager for Lockheed Martin Military Space.

Col. Gerry Gleckel, deputy director of global positioning for SMC, notes that the follow-on production program will “address increased anti-jam capabilities for the military with an affordable Regional Military Protection capability.” It also will feature a new hosted search and rescue GPS payload and a laser retro-reflector array to enable precision ranging measurements for the consolidation of telemetry, tracking and commanding frequencies. A redesigned nuclear detonation detection system is expected to have less overall size, weight and power.

Smith says components of the next six satellites, GPS 3 SV05 through 10, are arriving at Lockheed Martin daily from more than 250 suppliers in 29 states. “To date, more than 70 percent of parts and materials for SV05 08 have been received,” he says. According to Smith, the Air Force’s Back to Basics program has allowed Lockheed to develop a GPS 3 design that “has already proven itself with the Air Force’s Next Generation Operational Control System (OCX) and the existing GPS constellation.” Smith points to a Lockheed-Martin funded, $128-million cleanroom manufacturing center designed in a virtual reality environment for helping to maximize production efficiency.


OCX, the ground segment for GPS 3 that has faced numerous delays, is currently scheduled to be fully operational in April 2022, according to SMC. To bridge the gap between the launch of the first GPS 3 satellite and full OCX capability, the GPS 3 Contingency Operations capability will be operationally accepted into the existing ground control segment in fall 2019, Col. Gleckel says.


SBIRS includes a combination of satellites and hosted payloads in GEO and Highly Elliptical Orbit (HEO), and ground hardware and software. It provides critical data for enhancing the U.S. military’s ability to detect missile launches. The system, first launched in 2011, also supports ballistic missile defense and expands technical intelligence gathering. With the January 2017 launch of SBIRS Flight 3, three SBIRS GEO satellites are now on orbit along with three HEO sensors. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor. According to Smith, SBIRS GEO Flight 4 “is largely complete and awaiting confirmation of its launch date” — expected to take place in November.

According to Col. Dennis Bythewood, SMC remote sensing systems director, the Air Force delivered a major ground segment upgrade last December that consolidated the command and control of the SBIRS GEO, HEO and Defense Support Program space assets, along with enhancing the mission processing of collected data.

Another milestone: activating the Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) Battlespace Awareness Center (OBAC). Bythewood says that the Center, together with the Tools, Applications and Processing Lab in Boulder, Colorado, “will ensure innovation and facilitate a rapid transition of tools and applications from development to operations.” He adds, “Using these tools, the OBAC will enable our troops to collaborate with analysts worldwide and share actionable information with theater commanders in near real-time.”

Pointing to the increasing reliance on SBIRS capabilities for U.S. leaders, warfighters and the intelligence communities, Bythewood says, “SBIRS will continue to be a strategic investment not only to provide for our military’s readiness, but also to provide a clear deterrent to our adversaries with capabilities that can respond to threats and continue to support military operations unimpeded.” VS