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Technology Advances Promise Brighter Future in Milsatcom

By | September 1, 2012

      The U.S. military budget continues to shrink to the order of $487 billion in the next decade alone as conventional forces draw down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Military decision makers, however, continue to look at how best to field technology to meet their growing requirements, while those on the commercial side of the bargaining table determine which offering is most likely to impact the military market during the next three to five years.

      In talking with government and industry sources, three trends on future military requirements become clear: the government’s hunger for bandwidth on the move will continue to grow; the reduced military budgets are here to stay; and the shift to more airborne surveillance and reconnaissance missions that blossomed during the deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan will persist, expanding to new geographies such as Africa.

      Powerful, flexible, integrated, mobile, commercially available capabilities that embody the way forward for military users seeking to do more with less while leveraging breathtaking advances in satcom, mobile communications and networking technologies.  

      “As the U.S. military shifts its focus from CENTCOM to the Pacific theater, they will want to know how to leverage the lessons learned from the last 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, while taking into consideration the different challenges and threats that are emerging in the Pacific,” says Scott Scheimreif, acting vice president of the Government Division for Iridium.

      “One of the big technology challenges for our customers today has to do with the overwhelming amount of incoming intelligence data originating from UAVs, manned ISR applications, Earth observation satellites, radio frequency identification, sensor in-fill applications and many other sources,” notes Britt Lewis, vice president of marketing and business strategy for Intelsat General. “It’s a critical challenge to capture, manage and analyze the data within a tolerable elapsed time, and in turn, deliver intelligence-related products to the right people in time to be using in decision-making and action.”
      Cost effectively meeting mission requirements for location and duration anywhere in the world clearly is a major issue, Lewis adds. “Military customers want coverage in key areas of need worldwide and support for portability, from one satellite or connectivity to another.”

      JJ Shaw, vice president of product development for Inmarsat Government, agrees. “The question that I think keeps the military up at night is being solely dependent on a single technology or frequency. They want higher data rates to more applications — even down to the unit level. They’re looking for more diversity, more robustness and more resiliency.”

      He further explains that by being able to input more nodes in the network, the military can overcome vulnerability concerns from relying on a single technology.

      Shaw contends that military users will get these features through “terrestrial diversity, node terrestrial, orbital arc diversity, spectrum diversity and even media diversity.”

      The military’s need to use commercial satcom will continue, say industry observers. “I expect that we will continue to see growth in the reliance on commercial satcom, just not at the pace we saw over the last decade,” Scheimreif says.

      “The big question on the minds of my customers is bandwidth — capacity, as well as the whole cyber question — and that their data is secure; that service is resilient,” adds Simon Kershaw, divisional managing director for Telecom Services at Astrium Services.

      Astrium Services, through its Paradigm business, operates the Skynet 5 satellite constellation for the U.K. Ministry of Defense. He observes that as Ka-band systems come online, the availability of bandwidth will increase. “We are starting to do work to provide much higher bandwidth to mobile terminals such as fixed aircraft.”

      Kershaw emphasizes that it’s not just about data — it’s about information. “You will see the fusion of information beyond communications — the ability to fuse and exploit information at the warfighter level,” Kershaw adds.

      SEEME — Transmitting Imagery to Individual Soldiers

      Transmitting imagery to individual soldiers is the main goal of DARPA’s SeeMe (Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements) program. To do this, the program must develop a constellation of small disposable satellites, specificially a constellation of about two-dozen low-orbit satellites that would have a lifespan of 60 to 90 days, at a fraction of the cost of airborne systems. Last May, DARPA released its latest Broad Agency Announcement for the SeeMe program that will award $45 million in contracts to commercial bidders for the program.

      “SeeMe is about having satellites launch very fast and downlink direct imaging to the troops on the ground, almost at a micro level,” says Claude Rousseau, senior analyst with NSR, which in September publishes its 9th edition report on Government and Military Satellite Communications.

      Front-line troops deployed in remote locations are currently unable to obtain timely on-demand satellite imagery. The reasons include unavailability of satellite over-flight opportunities, lack of information distribution channels, prioritization conflicts and classification restrictions. With SeeMe, they will be able to hit “see me” on existing handhelds devices and receive a satellite image to their precise location within 90 minutes.

      According to Rousseau, the military market overall will continue to seek to leverage the strengths of small sats. “Because of budget constraints you are going to see a lot more smaller, more capable satellites. You also are going to see smaller more nimble terminals that can work in other frequency bands,” he says.

      DARPA’s larger research and development agenda includes launching smaller satellites faster. Its Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program plans to put 100-pound satellites into orbit for one-third the cost of traditional satellite systems.

      “Current small satellite payloads can cost up to $30,000 per pound to launch, which is unsustainable over the long haul. Even when our increasingly capable small satellites are launched, they are obliged to go to orbits selected by the primary payload on current launchers, rather than to the orbits their designers and operators would prefer,” says Mitchell Burnside Clapp, DARPA ALASA program manager. “Through this program we’d like to see the cost per flight drop to less than $1 million dollars, including the range support costs, for 100-pound payloads, and to be able to launch each of those satellites into a dedicated orbit.”

      AFRL Eyes Small SATS, Experimental Missions in MEO

      A tight budget climate also is pushing greater interest on small satellites within the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), while other services labs are looking to develop a smaller, light weight portfolio of capabilities, especially in the area of comms-on-the-move.

      AFRL, based out of Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, has done pioneering research in plug-and-play spacecraft — small satellites that can be developed and launched within days in response to tactical needs. They are constructed using modules to meet ISR needs in the field.

      “Small satellites are a sizeable portion of our portfolio because they both serve as a low-cost experiment platform that prove technology components operate and orbit, and because the potential that small satellites may have to disaggregate larger system capabilities onto smaller, less expensive platforms,” says Col. William Cooley, commanding officer, Phillips Research Site, and materiel wing director, AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate.

      James Lyke, technical advisor in the Space Electronics Branch in the Space Vehicles Directorate, notes that AFRL has been focused on space plug-and-play architecture since 2004, and specifically on enabling extremely rapid construction of small (400 kilograms or less) spacecraft.

      “The Operationally Responsive Space Office was the primary driver of our plug-and-play research,” says Lyke, noting that the tactical missions under study are between 12 months and 24 months in duration with about 90 percent reliability.

      “We think the technology is also a good fit for missions with eclectic compositions of instruments and simple payloads, such as some space-weather missions. These concepts, we believe, may also be useful in hosted payloads, as several of the hosted payload concepts we are aware of use the same physical layer technology (i.e. SpaceWire) as the plug-and-play approach,” Lyke adds.

      AFRL also is developing the Demonstration and Science Experiments (DSX) mission to research technologies needed to significantly advance Department of Defense capabilities. DSX is scheduled to launch in August 2015, and will feature 15 different payloads from AFRL, NASA, industry and academia. It has no star trackers, global positioning system or propulsion, and is built around an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter Ring — only the third ESPA ring to ever fly and it will fly in medium Earth orbit (MEO).

      Few satellites other than the GPS constellation operate in MEO because of the harsh radiation environment and how poorly the orbit is understood, says Mark Scherbarth, Demonstration and Science Experiments Satellite program manager, AFRL. “MEO is important in that smaller constellations can be used as compared to LEO or we can be closer to Earth as compared to GEO for communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as positioning/navigating/timing,” he says. “The data collected from the DSX mission will help to greatly improve the models the Air Force and DoD use for spacecraft design, so satellites will be able to fly in MEO with confidence.”

      Mobile AD HOC Networking

      Both U.S. Marine and Army labs are exploiting mobile ad hoc networking and a combination of radios and mobile handheld devices to more quickly get information into the hands of warfighters.
      The Marine Corps Warfighting Lab began testing handheld devices and new lightweight radios for uplink connectivity with Navy units off the Atlantic coast last winter. The experiment is driving decisions on the form factor of future military smartphones, as well as guiding how the Corps will integrate these devices with existing gear and networks. The experiment leveraged two radios — a Distributed Tactical Communications System (DTCS) radio and a 1.5-pound Mobile Adhoc Networking (MANET) radio. The MANET radio is capable of simultaneous voice and data, multiple hops and passively relaying other radios’ traffic.

      “Our focus is providing voice and over-the-horizon data and the local data networks once the landing teams are ashore. We’re doing that with our mobile ad hoc radio and handhelds,” says Capt. W.J. Matkins, C4 Branch head in the lab.

      In June, the U.S. Army concluded its third Network Integration Evaluation — NIE 12.2 — at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and at Ft. Bliss in El Paso, New Mexico. During exercises, a fully equipped brigade combat team used the NETT Warrior system with the Rifleman Radio and a connected Android device to exchange text messages, situation reports and other information. The exercise also used the WIN-T increment 2 for its satellite-based network backbone.

      “NIE 12.2 solidified the capability set 13 network baseline,” says Army integration spokesperson Paul Mehney. “It allows battlefield commanders to be able to take their network connectivity with them as they maneuver around the battle space. They are no longer tied down to a fixed location.”

      Mehney explains that these commanders now can maneuver their soldiers using more information so they can conduct missions being better informed whether they are offensive or defensive operations.

      Two brigades within the 10th Mountain Division will be among the first brigades to begin equipment fielding and training for these new capabilities beginning in October. A total of eight combat teams will receive the capability set 13 during the next year, he adds. A major advantage of the NIE, according to Mehney, is it allows soldier-user feedback early in the development process so the Army can make program adjustments before equipment is fielded.

      “It also allows for a relevant operational context — that is, integrating that capability into the brigade and begin to see how soldiers interact with and operate with that network capability,” says Mehney.
      The Army made some significant program adjustments based on NIE feedback. Mehney says the NETT Warrior system early on was considered too bulky, too heavy and did too much. The Army simplified the system with a radio for connectivity and a handheld for battlefield updates and by doing so, saved about $800 million and cut the weight of the system by two-thirds.


      Cost-Effective Testing

      The Army is seeking to drive down the costs of the NIEs by doing more integration and testing up front in the C4ISR lab at Aberdeen. The Army announced a new laboratory hub for C4ISR integration in June for that purpose.

      In previous NIEs, interoperability issues with capabilities had to be fixed on-site, increasing time and expenses. Army planners hope that the CSIL will drive the costs of NIEs down and find potential problems prior to field testing. The Army also is looking at training and test and evaluation processes.

      “The lab will allow us to do technical assessments to make sure those systems perform the way they need to perform. We can integrate those systems into the network so you are no longer putting that burden on the operational unit. Once those systems go down to Ft. Bliss, they’re already integrated into the network,” says Mehney.

      The NIE process has already avoided nearly $6 billion in costs by modifying or even canceling programs based on the soldier feedback, notes Mehney, who puts the price tag of each NIE at roughly $60 million.

      All 24 industry and government systems under evaluation for the next NIE scheduled for October will go through the new laboratory. Some of the technology questions being tackled at the next NIE concerned evaluating and assessing the next capability set 14, which focuses on bringing in the Stryker vehicle platforms and heavy combat team platforms.

      “There is significant size, weight and power concerns with those systems,” says Mehney. “We’re looking at industry to bring in mature, off-the-shelf technology solutions that could allow us to bring in both the terrestrial and satellite-based networks to those heavy platforms. We’re also looking at evaluating mid-tier waveforms and mid-tier radios themselves — the replacement of the JTRS ground mobile radio that uses the Wideband Network waveform.”

      The Marines and Army aren’t the only services looking at testing capabilities first before deployment. The Naval Research Lab’s New Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research (LASR) also intends to enable Navy and Marine Corps researchers to test out their ideas before going to the field.

      “Our facility gives us a cost-saving method for testing out concepts and ideas before we go to the expense of field trials,” Alan Schultz, LASR director, stated in March when the lab opened.
      The Washington, D.C.-based lab will serve as “the nerve center” supporting multidisciplinary research in autonomous systems for both the Navy and Marine Corps. It features a Prototyping High Bay used for small autonomous air vehicles, ground vehicles and the people who interact with them. A motion capture system in the bay will allow researchers to track up to 50 objects, and gather high-accuracy ground truth data of all systems of these tracked objects at 120 Hz.

      Initial research focuses include autonomous systems for self-configuring and self-healing networks, autonomous sensor networks and software to aid the warfighter in decision making. Current research projects to be tackled initially will assess advanced shipboard firefighting technology, including autonomous firefighting robots.

      Laser Payloads Coming on U.S., European Data Relay Satellites

      The coming years will see significant advances in the speed and performance of Earth imaging satellites using lasers, says NSR’s Rousseau. Astrium is working with the European Space Agency as it builds a massively fast laser link between LEO imaging satellites and GEO satellites for the European Data Relay System (EDRS). The laser link will vastly improve the throughput of data, says Kershaw, who predicts that the military will likely be interested in EDRS’s new capabilities once they are demonstrated.

      “The U.S. data relay system, TDRS, also will have their own laser payload to enable transmission of information at gigabits per second,” adds Rousseau. The Department of Defense already uses TDRS to transmit information for missions in low Earth orbit to the ground without relying on other ground segments.

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