10 Years After TSAT: Comsatcom Advancements at the Core of Integrated Architecture
Leading up to 2009, there were lofty visions about what satellite communications would provide for the U.S. government: The Air Force’s Transformational Satellite Communications System (TSAT) was underway, with the promise to launch an “internet in the sky” serving the Department of Defense (DOD), NASA and the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC). TSAT was envisioned as a secure, high-capacity global communications IP-based network for “net-centric warfare” that would support defense and intelligence professionals making rapid decisions based upon integrated, comprehensive information.
Then, in April of that year, the Pentagon cancelled the program, as the Obama administration sought to reduce defense spending. In the near two decades that have followed, the United States and its allies have had persistent and ever-broadening military engagement widely supported by commercial satellite communications (comsatcom). During this time, industry ramped up efforts to expand satellite communication (satcom) global mobility, flexibility, redundancy, throughput, resilience and protection. Comsatcom became the enabler for national security mission success, as the private industry has been unwavering in its determination to deliver the very best in innovation for servicemen and women who seek “anytime, anywhere” access to voice and high-bandwidth video and data transmissions.
Indeed, it is hardly hyperbolic to conclude that comsatcom has advanced in proverbial light years since TSAT’s cancellation — readily providing complementary satellite communication capabilities, which augment military legacy purpose-built systems. Throughout this time, DOD leadership has acknowledged these accomplishments, increasingly calling for new and improved business models for a public-private partnership with a “commercial first” mindset to establish a completely integrated satcom architecture to serve the modern — and future — national security mission.
Skipping forward to March of 2018, progress toward this goal reached a turning point: the $1.3 trillion omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year 2018 appropriated $600 million in the Air Force budget for two additional Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) satellites made by Boeing: WGS-11 and WGS-12. The appropriators justified the additional funds for the “Wideband Gapfiller Satellites” as a necessary hedge, in advance of the finalization of the wideband communications system Analysis of Alternatives (AOA) study completion, to ensure the Air Force is able to recapitalize its wideband milsatcom constellation over time by delaying the predicted capacity shortfall in the early-to-mid 2020’s.
The omnibus acknowledges the need for expanded wideband satcom capabilities yet allows time for proper planning and integration of more modern and capable commercial satcom than the dated yet traditional, broadcast-centric Ku-band leases. And yet, it also provides funding ahead of the executive branch’s determination of the acquisition approach for the anticipated integrated architectural and operational approach to unified satcom. Prior to the appropriations law, the Pentagon clearly indicated that the government would not buy any more WGS satellites beyond WGS-10. WGS-9 was deployed last year and WGS-10 is scheduled for launch later this year. Furthermore, the administration and the Pentagon leadership continue to stress its dependence on current and future mobility satcom innovation invested in and delivered by commercial satcom operators.
In the years between the cancellation of TSAT and the most recent unanticipated WGS appropriations, the DOD appeared positioned to more frequently benefit from comsatcom innovation. In fact, the U.S. Air Force’s AOA for the follow-on wideband communications system ushered in an era of unprecedented industry and government participation to build the next generation of satcom infrastructure to replace the aging WGS constellation. Initiated in December 2016, the AOA is viewed by senior leaders as a means to ensure that DOD agencies have ubiquitous satellite-enabled capabilities to support the full range of their missions. It brings an opportunity to define — arguably for the first time — a new approach which considers the scale, scope and innovation of industry to achieve essential outcomes, through harnessing the existing, planned, and even aspirational commercial capabilities as foundational with the overlay of finite, specific purpose-built government satellite capabilities as and where needed.
The current era of space as a highly contested and operationally challenged environment inspired the sense of urgency for the AOA, with a unified resolve among government and industry leaders to establish maximum resilience into an integrated satcom architecture. The critical importance of space is reflected throughout the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which states, “The reemergence of long-term strategic competition, rapid dispersion of technologies, and new concepts of warfare and competition that span the entire spectrum of conflict require a Joint Force structured to match this reality.” The government/industry partnership presents the opportunity to use all available resources in a meaningful fashion in building the architecture.
The industry has advanced and is integral to this new paradigm. In a recent interview, U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten, Commander of U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), emphasized the necessity to greater leverage commercial resources when asked about the DOD’s most immediate goals for military space programs.
The sense of strategic alignment of leadership and resources resonated during the 34th Space Symposium in April. Air Force Gen. John Raymond, commander of Air Force Space Command called it a time of “historic change.”
“In my opinion, there are three big reasons for this historic shift and advances that have been made,” Raymond said. “First is a strategic alignment of vision, strategy, leadership, and resources … Our partnerships with the National Reconnaissance Office, with our allies and commercial industry are extremely important and growing. There is a clear and better understanding of the potential threat and the implications of that threat to our national and the joint force.”
These remarks are consistent with the government leadership’s recognition of the importance of the government-industry partnership. The omnibus law, however, presents a contrarian view. Even more potentially problematic, it approves of additional funding to a dated program of record while the development of a clear satellite strategy is still underway. Admittedly the addition of two WGS satellites may “buy time” to find the right solution going forward yet, just like the step-change improvements in commercial capabilities realized since TSAT’s cancellation nearly a decade ago. And yet, going down the same path while the industry continues to move forward, the warfighter demands continue to grow and adversaries continue to innovate seems out of sync with the mantra of the national security leadership expectations. Therefore, for 2019, a strong leadership is needed to apply funding resources to take full advantage of the forward-looking architecture that commercial satellite operators and the government are collaborating upon, to optimize all of the advancements that comsatcom has to offer and determine the gaps where finite smaller purpose-built capabilities may be required.
Ultimately, a period of great opportunity is upon us. For the next year and beyond, we can realize the anticipated outcomes promised by TSAT, with industry-enabled, robust global mobile communications that is, first and foremost, resilient in light of today’s challenged space environment. We should align funding appropriations to intentionally leverage commercially engineered innovations into an integrated satcom architecture. With this, we would achieve that vision of a robust “internet in the sky” and beyond — with comsatcom paving the path to get there.
Rebecca M. Cowen-Hirsch is Senior Vice President for Government Strategy and Policy of Inmarsat Government Inc. With 25 years of experience in defense, aerospace, and executive leadership, she served as the Program Executive Officer for SATCOM, Teleport and Services at DISA. She also established the Defense Spectrum Office, serving as its first Director. She is a rated experimental flight test engineer, and became the first female civilian Mission Commander for the Advanced Range Instrumentation Aircraft (ARIA) mission. She was awarded the Exemplary Service Medal for her years of selfless service to the Department of Defense.