Future Military Communications: What Happens After TSAT?

By | September 1, 2009 | Government, Supplement

In July, at the Seattle World Affairs Council, U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, leader of U.S. Central Command, discussed how broadband IP network technology won the 2008 battle of Sadr City, Iraq, as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and warfighters using broadband communications on the move played key roles. In small or large battlefield operations of the 21st century and beyond, bandwidth will be as important as bullets for the warfighters, and the Transformational Satellite Communications System (TSAT) was believed to be force driven and necessary for air and naval superiority. Now what are the consequences of the U.S. Department of Defense’s cancellation of TSAT and how will the bandwidth gaps be filled?

Network-Centric Warfare

The next revolutionary military communication satellite system, TSAT, was a development shaped by Sept. 11, global terror and the technology development of UAVs. The vision was to increase the military satellite data rate capacity by thousands of times and enhance the ability to deploy troops around the globe by creating a user-friendly interface available anywhere. With Milstar 2, an image collected by a UAV would take 2 minutes to process, a radar image 12 minutes and a space-based radar image would take 88 minutes. The vision for TSAT was that any of these images could be delivered in less than a second.

But the program, TSAT, a constellation of six satellites connected to the Global Information Grid (GIG), was plagued with scheduling and budget problems since its inception in 2004. The satellite system was originally scheduled to launch in 2012 but was delayed to 2013 after a $300 million reduction of program funding was cut by U.S. Congress in 2005. The U.S. Air Force then delayed its decision to select TSAT’s final space segment development contractor. In October, the Pentagon announced that it would defer its decision on choosing a contractor to build the system until 2010, with no guarantees that it would continue to fund further development. A November report by the Defense Science Board and the Intelligence Science Board had warned against further delays, calling TSAT "essential to enhancing military and intelligence operations. Without TSAT, mobile land forces and Navy ships will lack sufficient assured (ISR) [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] communications capacity," the study said.

In December, after rumors of the program being on the brink of termination and a series of critical reports from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the U.S. Air Force released a new request for proposal to Lockheed Martin and Boeing, changing the program timeline once more by calling for five satellites and ground stations, with the launch of the first satellite projected for 2019. Gates, who retained his position as defense secretary through the January administration change, finally pulled the plug on TSAT four months later. "Gates determined that the risks were not offset by the chances of success with the current TSAT architecture," says Bruce Bennett, program executive for satellite communications teleport and services for the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA).

Filling TSAT’s Gaps

TSAT promised outstanding bandwidth and the ability to integrate with all of the Pentagon’s weapons systems — but with greater risk and higher cost. The end of the program leaves a gap in the military’s communications capabilities.

One question before the GAO was, could this leading technology be integrated in time versus the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites that had 5 percent of the bandwidth of TSAT? "When they cancelled TSAT, they cancelled programs that were heavily reliant on TSAT," says Cristina Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management for the GAO. … "The question is how fast can AEHF come on line when they need it, as that program has its own problems?"

While inferior to TSAT’s space segment, Lockheed Martin’s AEHF Milstar 3 is intended to provide 10 times the capacity and six times higher data rate transfer than the Milstar 2 satellites. The transition back to existing programs may fill the gaps and shortfalls. "With the cancellation of the TSAT program, TSAT missions such as communications-on-the-move and airborne ISR must be supported within these programs [Wideband Global Satellite (WGS) constellation and the Advanced EHF satellite system], and as appropriate, through commercial leases and/or hosted payloads," says Steve Tatum, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin. "TSAT was originally envisioned to support up to 30 Gbps (gigabits per second) of a additional communications capacity for the U.S. military including a mix of EHF protected, Ka-band AISR and optical services, although the requirement was later reduced to 5 Gbps of EHF protected services, including communications on the move," says Tatum. "AEHF is significantly more capable than Milstar. Two additional AEHF’s will be able to handle 21 percent of a single TSAT satellite," says Bennett. But it remains to be seen if this approach can replace the expected performance of TSAT.

The Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) has been in development since 2004, intended to augment UHF Follow-on (UFO), Fleet Satellite and Leasat spacecraft. "The Navy has a constellation of UHF satellites that is in orbit already, and they are working on a successor program, called MUOS. MUOS will satisfy UHF communications," says Gary Payton, undersecretary of the U.S. Air Force. Lockheed Martin has been slowed by technology setbacks, cost overruns and schedule delays on MUOS, but the launch of the first spacecraft is scheduled for 2010.

Boeing transferred control of WGS-2 satellite to the Air Force in June. WGS satellites are the highest-capacity military communications satellite, offering a major increase in bandwidth for airmen, soldiers, sailors and Marines. The Department of Defense eventually wants to acquire six WGS satellites. Three could take up to 66 percent of the commercial satellite capacity leased by the Pentagon. According to Diana Ball, spokeswoman for Boeing, "There is nothing available to the [Department of Defense] today that provides the kind of secure ISR and communications-on-the-move connectivity that TSAT would have provided. In the area of ISR, the military has historically relied primarily on commercial Ku-band satellite communications. With the fielding of the WGS satellites, much of this ISR traffic will be transitioning over to military satellite communications. However, the proliferation of UAVs, the need for even higher data rates, and the need for communications links that can operate in the presence of interference will drive the need for TSAT-like capabilities," she says.

"The six-satellite constellation of WGS has the capability to perform some of that (global operations in a secure and survivable communication bubble) mission," says Bennett. "WGS was designed in 2002 and was considered revolutionary in its capabilities. Each WGS satellite has the capability to provide 20 percent of the bandwidth of a single TSAT satellite. … WGS can fill some of the void, but again WGS has only 20 percent of the bandwidth that a TSAT was designed to handle and none of the protection for the waveform or the satellite. With WGS-2 and WGS-3 coming on line, plus a greater utilization of commercial satellite communications, most of the risks have been mitigated."

The three systems will help replace some of the lost capability, and the military will use those system and some of the technology already developed for TSAT to meet demand, says Payton. How can we capitalize on that piece part investment and the work we did to mature those technologies. … What we are doing is going back to the warfighters predominantly represented by our Strategic Command in Omaha and the Air Force Space Command in Colorado. We will go to the warfighter and have them quantify which new capability they want first and at what priority should we field next. Then we will figure out what will fit on the AEHF and WGS satellites. It could be a standalone, single mission satellite, but we do have as our charter to capitalize on those subsystems technologies that we proved over the last four years," says Bennett.

Commercial Means Filling Shortfall

With commercial operators already contributing to the military’s communications needs, the operators are ready to do more if asked. "The TSAT program was an example of the military wanting to put the very latest, cutting-edge technology into space to achieve a 110 percent solution to its communications challenges," says Kay Sears, president of Intelsat General Corp. "I think what we are seeing with the TSAT cancellation is a total reversal of that approach and a move toward a more distributed architecture that will function much like the Internet, with multiple nodes or hosted payloads spread across many different satellites around the globe. Some of these may be commercial and some may be military, but I think we will see a lot more off-the-shelf solutions getting into space more quickly with proven technology that is delivered on time and on budget."

Robert Demers, senior vice president, Americom Government Services says, "We believe that the requirement for net-centricity is key to [the Pentagon’s] overall strategy in how they plan to conduct operations. So the requirement or the desire for the driver to have net-centricity is a key part of their communications and is not, in anyway shape or form, been retired. It is difficult to determine how DISA will procure satellite communication or communications services in the future. It (TSAT cancellation) does change the architecture and allows them to be able to address the non-protected issues for broadband and to get it cheaper and faster through using commercial operators such as ourselves. Maybe there is an opportunity with TMOS to have a better integration of commercial satellite communications and military satellite communications through that architecture. … With the TSAT decision, we believe in the commercial satellite industry and with the operators, in particular, to provide the [Department of Defense] an opportunity to build on its already growing relationship with that community and to integrate fully the commercial aspects of the Industry into their architecture."

The challenge for both sides is how to determine the amount of bandwidth and capability the Pentagon wants own and control versus how much it is willing to lease from commercial providers.

Evolutionary Transformation

Relying on AEHF to do the protected communication job will relegate net-centric warfare benefits to boutique special operations missions and forego the greater vision of shared information, situational awareness, cross branch collaboration and the resulting game-changing increased mission effectiveness. TSAT would have delivered two important things to the protected class of communications crucial to a network centrically based style of war fighting: a globally meshed infrastructure of protected cross linked platforms and an increased number of connections with higher data rates to create the access system required to connect network centric warfare field units to database, analysis, distribution and command centers.

"With MUOS, UFO, [the Defense Satellite Communications System], WGS, SHF, EHF, AEHF, Department of Defense teleports, STEPS, fixed regional nodes and Navy NCTMS working together to leverage their joint capabilities we will be able to off-set some of the TSAT requirements," says Bennett. "A follow-on to TSAT will be required by 2020. Alternatives such as Hughes Spaceway, ViaSat-1, [Cisco’s Internet Router in Space] and their potential military adaptation of those commercial products may assist in filling the shortfall. … If our satellite systems are not capable of extending the GIG then our warfighters will suffer."

Richard Theodor Kusiolek worked in Silicon Valley architecting digital battlefields and the high-tech multimedia city. Kusiolek is a faculty instructor with the University of Phoenix and chairman and president of TransGlobalNet LLC, a global management consultancy specializing in strategic technical marketing management. He can be reached at richardtheodor@aol.com.

Status of Major Space Procurement Programs as of February

Advanced Extremely High Frequency Satellites (AEHF)

  • Lead Contractor: Lockheed Martin

  • Number of satellites: 3 to 5

  • Projected launch dates: SV1 in April 2008; SV2 in 2009; SV3 in 2010

  • Funding/Program status: The Air Force notified Congress of a Nunn-McCurdy breach of at least 15 percent. SV3 production contract for $491 million was awarded to Lockheed Martin in January. SV4 and SV5 manufacturing launches scratched in December 2002. SV4 was eliminated by Air Force again in October but both may be reactivated because of milestone issues surrounding the Transformational Satellite Communications System.

Mobile User Objective System (MUOS)

  • Lead Contractor: Lockheed Martin

  • Number of satellites: 2 with options for 3 additional

  • Original/Projected launch date: 2010

  • Funding/Program status: In 2004, Lockheed Martin won a $2.1 billion Navy contract to build the first two MUOS advanced narrowband satellites and associated ground-control elements. Lockheed Martin completed preliminary design review in January and has moved to critical design review. Director of Operational Test & Evaluation expressed concern about MUOS throughput capacity and the impact of delays in Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) development, which might affect MUOS terminal testing and deployment.

  • Note: One military satellite communications expert indicates that there has been a huge effort on MUOS throughout the past few septembers to address capacity (not throughput of individual channels). The capacity efforts were not planned for and they took resources away from planned efforts. As a result, there has been a three-september slip in the MUOS ground segment critical design review schedule. "From a technical perspective, MUOS does not have to depend on JTRS. Anyone could build MUOS end-user terminals. If JTRS falls on its face, then a portion of the JTRS money could be reprogrammed to produce MUOS end-user terminals. My read is that patience for JTRS is waning in [the Pentagon]. This year appears to be a critical one for determining the future of JTRS," this expert says.

National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS)

  • Lead Contractor: Northrop Grumman

  • Number of satellites: Started at 6, could drop from projected 4 down to 2

  • Original/Projected launch date: 2009/2012

  • Funding/Program status: The Air Force notified Congress last fall of a Nunn-McCurdy breach. Congress appropriated $324 Million in fiscal year 2009. Projections for program started at more than $7 billion and have grown to more than $10 billion. Sensor development problems are the driving force behind cost overruns and schedule delays.

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