WASHINGTON — As part of the Space Force’s effort to modernize its tactical satellite communications infrastructure, the service is considering how to ensure that international partners can benefit from and contribute to those capabilities.
That next-generation suite of more resilient communication satellites and ground capabilities is known as the Protected Anti-Jam Tactical Satellite Communications family of systems, or PATS. Leveraging partnerships with allies is a top priority for the effort, according to Charlotte Gerhart, who leads the tactical SATCOM division within Space Systems Command, the Space Force’s acquisition arm.
That’s in part because secure communication is key to any military engagement, particularly one that involves international cooperation, she told C4ISRNET in an interview.
“You’ve got to be able to share information,” Gerhart said. “If I can have a direct link with my international partner who’s there in a joint coalition with me performing efforts — be that strictly military efforts or just humanitarian efforts — if I can talk directly, then that communication loop is much faster, and as a team, we’re so much more effective because we’re talking directly to each other.”
The program is part of a broader effort within the Space Force to ensure its satellite communications architecture is protected against enemy jamming and flexible enough to incorporate commercial systems and international capabilities. While PATS focuses on the service’s tactical SATCOM mission, a separate effort, Evolved Strategic SATCOM, will overhaul the systems that provide strategic nuclear command, control and communications capabilities.
PATS includes three capability development efforts: a protected waveform; an enterprise SATCOM ground system; and a fleet of communication satellites. The Space Force plans to spend about $2.4 billion on the effort from fiscal 2024 to fiscal 2027, according to its FY24 budget proposal.
Gerhart and her team have been working toward interoperability with allied partners since the program’s inception in 2018, but she said it takes time to establish the baseline technology and certifications required to share technology with other countries. The COVID-19 pandemic also delayed some of those efforts, which require in-person, on-site analysis.
The government-developed Protected Tactical Waveform is the first entry point in the program for international partners. The capability will provide the program’s anti-jam communications over a mix of government and commercial satellites operating in various frequency bands. The Space Force has demonstrated its utility in a number of demonstrations and is now working to integrate it into hardware.
The waveform is what will allow the U.S. and its partners to communicate and is key to enabling cooperation on other parts of the program. To use it, countries need certain cryptographic devices, which Gerhart’s team is in the process of certifying with the National Security Agency.
Once those are certified and approved for international distribution, the program can begin to explore partnership opportunities to allow countries to use the waveform, which is managed by the program’s ground segment, the Protected Tactical Enterprise Service.
PTES ensures the waveform can be distributed across various satellite systems. Boeing, which won a $383 million contract for the program in 2018, is developing the ground segment and ran a demonstration earlier this year that validated the full slate of capabilities using a commercial satellite. Gerhart said the program is on track to complete development and reach initial operations next year.
Once agreements are in place for partners to use the waveform and ground segments of the program, the service also expects to increase collaboration on the satellite capabilities. That network of spacecraft is called Protected Tactical SATCOM, and Boeing and Northrop Grumman are both developing prototype systems that will launch either in late 2024 or 2025, Gerhart said. The program office is working to get approval for its acquisition strategy and expects to make a contract award the operational satellites in FY24.
“PTES and the waveform are the very basic fundamental building blocks,” she said. “When we get to the PTS satellite system, we are definitely working with international partners to understand what their needs would be for that type of capability.”
Leveraging international investment
As Gerhart and her team consider how to make the Space Force’s tactical SATCOM capabilities available to other countries, they are also closely watching as allies and partners invest funding in systems of their own.
Countries including the U.K., Australia and Luxembourg — all of whom have participated in past U.S. SATCOM sharing efforts — are modernizing their own systems or working with commercial providers to increase access to crucial military communication capabilities.
The U.K. is in the midst of a £6 billion (U.S. $8 billion) effort to upgrade its satellite communication system, Skynet. Through the Skynet Enduring Capability program, the Ministry of Defence is developing a more advanced network of satellites and ground systems.
In April, Australia selected Lockheed Martin to develop its new satellite communications architecture, JP 9102, under a contract that could be worth up to AU$4 billion (U.S. $3 billion). The deal is the largest defense space award the country has made.
Luxembourg’s parliament approved a plan in June to acquire SATCOM from O3b mPower, a commercial constellation run by SES Space and Defense. The agreement will cost €195 million (U.S. $212 million) over a decade.
That growing investment in satellite communications and other space capabilities from militaries around the globe has driven a change within the U.S. Defense Department from focusing mostly on how its space assets might benefit other countries to now also considering how it can take advantage of allied capabilities.
The Space Force calls this approach “Allied by Design,” and Gerhart said it’s a concept the PATS program wants to embrace.
Previous U.S. tactical communications efforts such as the Advanced Extremely High Frequency or Wideband Global SATCOM programs have been praised for pursuing international partnerships. AEHF established sharing agreements with the U.K., Canada, the Netherlands and Australia. WGS also partnered with those countries, plus Denmark, Luxembourg, New Zealand, the Czech Republic and Norway.
For PATS, Gerhart said, the service wants to expand on that collaboration and look more closely at how it can use systems like Skynet.
“In the past, it’s largely been ... we would build the satellite and we’d share that capacity,” she said. “Can we do that in the reverse fashion in the future? The U.K. is building Skynet, can we use part of Skynet? Those are all the things that we’re envisioning and thinking about.”
That shift, Gerhart said, is similar to the current push within the Space Force to rely more on commercial space capabilities. While it will take time for operators to adjust to having a larger pool of SATCOM systems to draw from, she said she thinks the adjustment won’t be as difficult as it may seem.
“It’s not as hard as we think, but it will take a bit of work to make sure that we have everything in place on both sides of the partnership and that we do use those capabilities to the best extent possible,” she said.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.