Lowering Cost: An Atlas V rocket carrying an Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The Air Force is looking for ways to protect satellite communications under sequestration. (Pat Corkery/United Launch Alliance)
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WASHINGTON — With sequestration likely to remain, the US Air Force is looking for ways to drive down cost on protected military satellite communications.
“Our budgets are shrinking, the threats are getting harder and the requirement and need is getting greater,” warned David Madden, executive director of the service’s Space and Missile Systems Center (AFSMC).
Madden said AFSMC’s budget has been cut from $10 billion to $5.6 billion without a drop in the services it must provide. That’s forced some creative thinking, and will likely lead to a greater reliance on the commercial industry.
“It’s actually allowing us to do some things that we always kind of wanted to do but no one would do because the risk associated, and [back then] we had the money,” Madden said. “Now they’re actually listening to some ideas.” That includes joint ventures with allies.
“It’s significantly reducing our ownership costs, as well as putting our allies on the same frequencies and systems that we’re on as well,” he said. “So I think there’s huge opportunity there.”
Madden also highlighted competitive launch as a cost-cutter.
“We really do believe competition in the launch market is good for the industry,” Madden said. “We’re pushing really hard to move forward to get new entries certified so we can have a competitive launch market.”
But he noted the service has to be careful when laying out the groundwork for entrants to join the military launch marketplace.
“Access to space is expensive, and that’s the bottom line, and assured access is even more expensive,” he said. “We’re not launching commercial [intelligence satellites]. If something happens in their business, it’s money that gets lost. In our business, it’s lives.”
The question of competitive launch is a hot one due to the open protest suit filed against the Air Force by SpaceX, which is seeking to overturn a sole-source award of 36 launches to the United Launch Alliance (ULA).
That protest led to a temporary injunction preventing ULA from purchasing any RD-180 engines produced in Russia and used in the Atlas V rocket, due to sanctions placed by the US against Russian leadership. That injunction was lifted May 8, but the protest continues and will likely be a major point of discussion during this week’s National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Meanwhile, Russian officials have decided to block the sale of RD-180 engines for any Pentagon-related programs, according to multiple news sources.
But perhaps nothing is changing as much as the Pentagon’s increased willingness to trust commercial partners with military communications.
The issue, Madden said, is that the service decided to loop together both the strategic and tactical communications. And while having a communications line capable of operating in the midst of a nuclear war is strategically vital for the US, it also means that data rates are slow during non-nuclear emergencies.
“At the end of the day the data rate gets cranked way down so we can ensure that comm is going to get through. But on a day like today, do we really need to do that?”
Madden noted that AFSMC is working on a new waveform known as Protected Tactical Waveform (PTW) that could run on commercial systems.
“We’ve tested it out on WGS [Wideband Global Satcom], we’ve tested it on commercial systems and it provides significantly more [anti-jam] capability over our wideband systems,” Madden said. “If we can do that, all that requires is a modem change. Now we can use the current infrastructure whether you have commercial receiver or military receiver, we just change out the modem, take advantage of the waveform, and you could end up with as much as 20 DB more anti-jam protection. So now we could take the systems we have and get more [anti-jam] out of the wideband systems.”
Madden said the waveform could also provide the basis of a future protected tactical system.
Brian Rodriguez, director of business development and strategy at Raytheon’s Protected Communication Systems, said his company views the waveform an “important capability” for the Pentagon.
Both Raytheon and its competitor, a team of Intelsat General and L-3 Communication Systems-West, have undergone tests to prove the modem change-out could provide anti-jam capabilities for tactical forces in the field.
“Some terminals may need small tweaks because of unique requirements, but nothing major,” Rodriguez said. “It’s designed to work with existing terminals that operate on WGS.”
Specifically, anything operating on X-band and Ku-band should be able to work with the new modems. That includes commercial terminals, although those may have some restrictions.
Like Madden, Rodriguez identified the PTW program as part of a broader effort at the Pentagon to use existing technologies. He also noted that the “pivot” toward Asia requires the Pentagon to have greater anti-jam capabilities than in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“There’s more near-peer adversaries as you shift to the Pacific than what we had to deal with,” he said. “So you see requirements to do things that were maybe a little tougher on the communications side and, especially with the budget pressure, you try to reuse things that exist to make them more affordable.”
Of course, reusing existing technologies and finding smarter ways to work with commercial providers is something that the outgoing head of Air Force Space Command, Gen. William Shelton, has made a key point of his tenure. It’s part of the policy of “disaggregation,” driving toward smaller, more cost-effective systems across the space architecture.
One person expected to be on board is Shelton’s successor, Lt. Gen. John Hyten, who has served as Shelton’s vice commander. One of the challenges facing Hyten will be how to use hosted payloads, a major part of disaggregation that relies on working closely with commercial providers.
For his part, Madden expects to see more work with hosted payloads, but work remains.
“We’re still struggling a little with hosted payloads,” Madden said. “Were trying to get more payload focused as opposed to platform focus. So I think what you’ll see is we’re going to go off and figure out what’s the payload we need.” ■