Protecting the Warfighter Begins With Ground Terminals

By | September 1, 2011 | Feature, Government

Providing the best possible protection for warfighters could mean the difference between life and death. Here, we look at how satellite technology is evolving to protect warfighters, as they take-on missions in dangerous war zones across the world.

From Blue Force Tracking (BFT) to Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) and Tactical SHF Satellite Terminals (TSST), each new acronym in the military satcom ground terminal business brings with it a slew of critical capabilities designed to enhance military operations and save lives. Manufacturers are working with their military clients to supply the appropriate tools and infrastructure to the warfighter in a timely manner. To do so, terminal developers are moving technology in two directions — to and from the commercial satellite sector.
 
Keith Buckley, ASC Signal president and CEO, and his company have been developing communication products for a wide variety of customers both vertically between markets and across different geographic regions. Buckley said his company’s “in-house” approach to military terminal development has provided a healthy business for the commercial satellite industry in general.
 
“Our antennas, for example, have a combination of both multi-band on the same feed, or interchangeable feeds to switch bands. That was, initially, a commercial development,” says Buckley. “In the case of fixed terminals, a lot of that multi-band feed technology was then ported to the military solutions. For military systems, the less there is to deploy into the theater of operations, the better you are. The more versatile your terminals are, the easier it is to manage operations from a logistics standpoint. This was a very easy porting of our technology for much of our transportable technology — our comms-on-the-pause technology, which we then have geared heavily towards military applications.”
 
One of the main cross-development efforts in recent military terminal technology is Blue Force Tracking — a military term used to describe a GPS-enabled system that aims to provide U.S. military commanders and forces with location information about friendly and hostile military forces. The system transmits locations over the Force 21 Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2) network and transmits those specific coordinates to the U.S. Army Tactical Operations Center.
 
Blue Force Tracking-2 (BFT-2), the U.S. Army’s next-generation situational awareness system, will begin seeing action in battle theaters in 2012. The Army selected ViaSat as the winner of the $477 million BFT-2 program contract and will base its system on the operator’s ArcLight mobile satcom technology. “The technology stands on its own merit,” says ViaSat vice president of Global Satcom Systems, Phil Berry. “The BFT-2 architecture has effectively reduced latency by shortening the path that position-location data must travel before it reaches warfighters in theater. Under the current BFT architecture, data from forward-deployed units must pass through a network operations center (NOC), which processes and rebroadcasts the data provided by satellites and ground stations. With BFT-2, the L-band transceivers bypass the NOC, transmitting position-location data to a satellite and then to a ground station, before sending it back to warfighters in the field. This is a quantum leap in capabilities for the Army and Marine Corps. It’s significantly faster and more efficient and will bring real-time situational awareness to warfighters in combat vehicles and rotary-wing aircraft.”

Since the BFT-2 contract was announced, the Army has placed $71.1 million in orders with ViaSat under the program. In addition to new terminals, ViaSat will provide additional terrestrial Internet connectivity, support for network operations and production vehicular transceivers. “These orders will enable ViaSat to accelerate ground vehicular transceiver production and support Army installation and field testing of the BFT-2 system this year,” says Berry.
 
Commercial off-the-shelf blue force and blue personnel tracking (BFT/BPT) specialists also are making an impact on cross-vertical development efforts. In July, Track24 unveiled a new turnkey situational command and control solution, the SCC Titan, which aims to offer full BFT capabilities to military commanders alongside upgraded features including red force contact, machine-to-machine (M2M) signaling and a communications platform engineered to support and integrate battlefield VHF/UHF/HF radio with the incumbent AES256-encrypted satellite communications network. SCC Titan’s new M2M capabilities are supported by Track24 Defense’s Whisper satellite device, which uses the Iridium satellite network to provide secure AES256 satellite communications.
 
“Offering affordable, secure, interoperable beyond-line-of-sight situational command and control, was the initial challenge,” says Giles Peeters, Track24 defense sector director. “However, SCC Titan’s capabilities, which have been upgraded since the original SCC launch, allow us to present forces around the world with a comprehensive blue force tracking battle management system, that can stand alone or be integrated into any other C2 strategic system, at a fraction of the cost of other solutions on the market.”
 
Comtech Mobile Datacom, which rivaled ViaSat in its bid for the Blue Force Tracking 2 award, is still supplying the Army with support for its legacy systems. The company recently received an initial funded order totaling $4.6 million to support the U.S. Army’s Movement Tracking System (MTS) program with a supply of satellite bandwidth, satellite network operations, engineering services and program management support through December 2011. The order was placed under Comtech’s existing $384 million Blue Force Tracking (BFT-1) to support the MTS program, which has now been consolidated under its direction.
 

Pursuing Reliable Systems

VSAT terminal solutions providers have been contributing unique commercial-based technology by entering the tactical satellite market. Skyware CEO David McCourt recently selected vice president David Geen to lead the establishment of Skyware’s new Tactical Ground Systems (TGS) business unit in June. Geen will lead the division’s efforts to utilize the company’s existing in-house antenna and RF electronics design capabilities and high-volume production to offer solutions for fixed-, motorized- and mobile-tactical terminals for defense, civil government and commercial applications.
 
TGS Group initial product line-up will focus on turnkey solutions for vehicle-mounted, flyaway and manpack platforms operating in C-, X-, Ku- and Ka-band. “We see this market as being underserved and, given the financial climate, believe we are well positioned to take advantage of this opportunity with our high-tech, low-cost credentials. Our expanding research and development department and the recent opening of a facility in Washington, D.C. demonstrate our commitment to the industry,” says McCourt.
 
Terminals that are able to switch between commercial and military Ka-band are exactly the kind of ground-segment developments Inmarsat senior vice president of government policy, strategy and outreach, Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch has been looking for, since her company targeted Ka-band terminal technology falling behind the capability of the available Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) as a key issue that required quick action.
 
Cowen-Hirsch is happy with the terminal research and development progress that has been made for both the WGS and Global Hawk programs during the past year.
 
“We’re seeing very positive movement in the right direction for the government,” says Cowen-Hirsch. “The research and development arm of the U.S. Army is actually doing some testing on terminals that extend between military and commercial Ka-band. They have confirmed that developing this technology is not a huge leap and that it also is operable over the WGS system. This is a key opportunity for greater flexibility and cost savings. The Global Hawk program, which a very essential program on the airborne side, also is putting the ability for their Ka-band terminals to tune through commercial and military Ka-band into their requirements for operational flexibility. So we have testing going on in the government and programs of record putting in requirements and at U.S. Strategic Command, which is looking across relevant programs to insert that requirement and expectation.”
 
More and more manufacturers are now exploring this type of terminal capability. Military customers hope the end result for the warfighter includes greater operational flexibility at either no cost or a very modest incremental cost from previous systems. Cowen-Hirsch says her only concern is that the development acquisition efforts need to be accelerated to ensure that the government can capitalize on the WGS system that’s on-orbit, as well as take advantage of what’s coming online from commercial companies.

“I see a requirement shift versus specific implementation during the last six months of the year because it does take time to actually purchase and install systems. Right now, we’re at the last quarter of the fiscal year and Congress did not get a current year budget approved until well into the second half of the year,” says Cowen-Hirsch. “So, the ability for the government to actually do something in this short time frame is limited by budget and the clock running out.”

Development efforts on the Army’s World-Wide Satellite Systems (WWSS) in support of the program manager for the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (PM WIN-T), however, are already well underway.TeleCommunication Systems (TCS) is working to fulfill its recent order to provide $60.8 million in Tactical SHF Satellite Terminals (TSST) to the Army in the second- and third-quarters of 2012. To ensure mission continuity, TCS’ SwiftLink family of deployable communications solutions was designed to provide complete end-to-end managed services for converged (IP-based) voice, video and data solutions to organizations requiring seamless, highly secure connectivity between fixed sites and remote operations.
 
“Today’s warfighter often depends upon secure, rugged and rapidly deployable systems to achieve their missions,” says Michael Bristol, TCS senior vice president and general manager. “Ongoing military efforts throughout the world demand secure deployable communications systems…”
 
TCS also received $12.8 million in funding from the U.S. Army for equipment and field services to support Secret IP Router and Non-secure IP Router Access Point (SNAP) VSAT satellite systems. The SNAP program includes options for about 1,500 terminals and supporting equipment to be deployed in various sizes and configurations, along with up to 30 field support positions.
 
For the U.S. Air Force, L-3 Telemetry-East (L-3 TE) is currently working on upgrades to its fielded telemetry ground receivers to incorporate the C-band spectrum. L-3 TE engineers have been working with Air Force personnel at Edwards Air Force Base to test a down-conversion scheme designed to ensure optimum functionality with no degradation to existing performance. Edwards Air Force Base recently added the C-Band frequencies and recommended a down-conversion scheme to the Inter-Range Instrumentation Group (IRIG) telemetry standards, which will be published in the fall.
 
The Air Force’s ability to invest in warfighter ground terminal technology may be hampered by U.S. congressional budgetary issues, as the U.S. House of Representatives is making alterations to its budget in a defense spending bill that is expected to reduce the budget for the GPS space and ground segments from $463.1 million to about $413 million. Congressional appropriators want to slim the Air Force’s $390.9 million request for its GPS OCX, currently in development by Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems, by about $50 million. The Air Force launch vehicle budget is on the chopping block as well, and analysts expect the final total to be cut by about $170 million, however, an additional $335 million in funds were authorized to purchase the ninth WGS satellite from Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems.
 

Thinly Spread Programs

Congress is making alterations to the U.S. Air Force’s plans for GPS and its Evolutionary Acquisition for Space Efficiency (EASE) strategy after a June 13 U.S. House of Representatives’ defense subcommittee report harshly criticized the Pentagon’s budget management. The EASE strategy was first announced in January, when the Air Force unveiled plans to implement a new acquisition strategy that relies more on multi-satellite purchases with the intent of eliminating the funding fits and starts that have plagued space programs in recent years.
 
Cowen-Hirsch has been critical of development budget cuts, and claims that even when the WGS program is fully funded, it remains inefficient to provide the capacity to meet the warfighter requirements. “There still is a gap between what the warfighter requires to complete his missions and that which is available to support his mission space. That keeps providers and their military customers in a reactive mode and that’s not ever a good thing,” she says.
 
Congress finds itself in a key timeframe — adjusting marks and appropriations in authorization conferences. Cowen-Hirsch believes that inconsistencies between the budget process on Capitol Hill and the statements of the Obama administration suggests a pretty significant disconnect on the essential needs of the warfighter.
 
“U.S. Secretary of Defense Gates and the president both put the EASE program in place through the Air Force’s evolutionary type acquisition, which is to ensure that you get a strong industrial base and you can have predictable long-term budgeting, as well as getting capability on the ground or out to the warfighter in the satellite arena,” says Cowen-Hirsch. “That stated objective was cut by Congress. For service providers, the ASSIST line item was actually zeroed-out from DISA’s budget and put into the Air Force budget for the purchase of more WGS satellites or a full production capable satellite. That is inconsistent with the U.S. National Security Space Strategy of leveraging innovative relationships with commercial satcom to complement military. This is especially true in the wideband arena.”

The bottom line for service providers is to provide cost-effective and efficient value propositions. As Congress continues to go more towards the traditional approach of avoiding difficult trades in preference of deep cuts, warfighter capabilities across the board could be spread too thin, with communication programs suffering as a result. There still is a gap between what the warfighter requires to complete missions and that which is available to support his mission space.

What impact are these budget cuts expected to make beyond 2012? Beyond the financial figures and growth projections, the well-financed defense firms that are expected to take on a lead integrator role for future military capabilities have raised serious technological concerns — irrational budget politics cannot prevent the military from utilizing existing and future capabilities that are already well down the pipeline.

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