WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force is moving ahead with a plan to extend the life of the Mobile User Objective System constellation, requesting funds in fiscal 2023 to build and launch two more ultra-high frequency communication satellites.
The service last month released details of its budget request, including $165.9 million for MUOS development in fiscal 2023 and about $2.2 billion over the next five years. It also includes funding for two fixed-price satellite design contracts to be awarded early next year. The service expects a total development cost of $3.7 billion and to launch the satellites in 2029 or 2030, budget documents show.
The MUOS constellation includes four active satellites and one orbiting spare and was built by the Navy with Lockheed Martin Corp. as prime contractor. With the creation of the Space Force, the program was chosen to change hands from the Navy to the new service — a move that became official in March with the passage of the Fiscal 2022 Omnibus Appropriations Act.
MUOS satellites operate in the 300 MHz to 3GHz frequency range, making them less vulnerable to severe weather conditions. The narrowband communications constellation is a replacement for the legacy Ultra High Frequency Follow-On system and was designed to provide 10 times the capacity of previous UHF satellites. Each carries two payloads: one to maintain the UHF network and a second that provides a new Wideband Code Division Multiple Access capability.
The plan to buy more satellites originated with the Navy as means to extend the constellation’s on-orbit life to at least 2034 and its supporting ground segment to 2039. According to budget documents, the new satellites will not carry the legacy UHF payload. Officials have said they may have enhanced capabilities, but haven’t offered details.
The service’s decision to restart the MUOS production rather than pursue equivalent, and likely less expensive, commercial capabilities raised questions among outside experts. Not only is it a costly endeavor, but MUOS has faced delays — particularly with its ground segment and user equipment — that have prevented users from taking full advantage of the system’s newer payload and left them reliant on the legacy UFO capability.
Todd Harrison, director of budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told C4ISRNET in an interview that the Space Force appears to be choosing the more traditional route rather than considering how it might take a more cost-effective approach to the MUOS mission.
“It’s the status-quo model of, ‘We just need to buy the legacy version of the system,’” he said.
Space Force spokesman Capt. James Fisher told C4ISRNET in a May 4 email that the life-extension effort will buy the service time as it explores longer term options for narrowband communications through an analysis of alternatives led by the Space Warfighting Analysis Center, to begin this summer.
While there are commercial options for UHF SATCOM, he said, those capabilities don’t meet all of the Department of Defense’s requirements, which is why the MUOS constellation and the life-extension effort are needed.
“There are, and will continue to be, unique Department of Defense requirements not provided by commercial services, some of which MUOS currently fulfills,” Fisher said.
The request also includes funds for MUOS procurement: $46.8 million in fiscal 2023 and about $244.6 million across the Space Force’s five-year spending outlook. According to budget documents, near-term procurement funding will address obsolescence and cybersecurity vulnerabilities on the MUOS ground segment and out-year money will fund hardware and software upgrades.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET's space and emerging technology reporter. She previously covered the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force for Inside Defense.