AFA Conference makes it clear – integrated satellite architecture essential for multi-domain ops

The vignette presented by Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David Goldfein at the recent Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference was meant to illustrate an awe-inspiring military of the future – one capable of operating in multiple domains simultaneously to overwhelm an opponent with an incredible show of coordinated military force.

As Gen. Goldfein explained, his vision for future multi-domain operations, “…isn’t just about the domains…nor is it just about executing operations across these domains, we already do that now. Where we’re going is to use dominance in one domain or many, blending a few capabilities or many, to produce multiple dilemmas for our adversaries in a way that will overwhelm them. This is where we’re going.”

On display in the video presentation was a fictional military situation being responded to by the military that Gen. Goldfein claimed we’d need in 2030 – and the force that he and his contemporaries are prepared to create for our nation. And, from my seat in the National Harbor’s Gaylord resort, it was certainly impressive.

The vignette illustrated an integrated and collaborative approach to multi-domain operations that showcased how sea, air, land, space and cyber operations – working collaboratively – could be pressed into service to quickly respond to escalating aggressions from an adversary and almost immediately repel a fictional invasion of an imaginary allied nation.

And while the vignette and presentation was impressive and aspirational, it was also frustrating for some in the room. That’s because, while it incorporated coalition forces in practically every domain, it was obviously missing something that the Air Force has claimed it would increasingly rely upon in the future – commercial satellites.

Why commercial satellite matters
While there are many things that commercial satellite services could deliver to the military, there are two specific benefits that I really consider the most important – innovation and resiliency. And both of those things could have been used by the fictional force in Gen. Goldfein’s vignette.

Air Force senior leadership has admitted on numerous occasions that the commercial satellite industry is the clear leader in space today. It’s the leader because it moves quickly and must satiate the world’s enormous appetite for satellite capacity.

Commercial satellite providers are constantly building and launching new satellites to replace aging spacecraft and to fill the capacity requirements of their customers. With the nearly constant and rapid pace of satellite development, construction and launch, the commercial satellite industry gets frequent opportunities to incorporate the latest and greatest technology advancements into their satellites.

Compare this to how the military has traditionally operated. The military has been building and launching similar WGS satellites for a decade. And the time it takes the military to design, develop, build and launch a new satellite means that, by the time they launch a new satellite, the technologies on it are no longer cutting edge.

When it comes to resiliency, commercial satellite providers have been long fighting against the misconception that their services are in some way less resilient and secure than military satellites. And there is a good reason why that misconception exists, there are demonstrated benefits to operating in the X band frequency, as satellite expert, Phil Harlow, recently articulated in another article on the Government Satellite Report:

“With only ten [X band] WGS satellites in orbit, there is less chance of adjacent satellite interference. This means that more power can be put down from each satellite without fear of interfering with other, adjacent satellites (or being interfered with by other satellites). This higher power results in a stronger signal on the ground that further overcomes attenuation from environmental factors, increases throughputs and improves link reliability.”

However, the small number of WGS satellites creates a resiliency problem itself. If a near-peer adversary is looking to deny the military’s satellite services – which have long been a strategic edge for our military – they only have ten potential satellites to target.

This lack of diversity makes it easier for enemies to target and deny satellite capabilities, which is why Kimberly Morris, satellite communications operations division head at the U.S. Naval Network Warfare Command recently called for an increase in satellite options when she said, “We need diversity – we need a wide range of diversity,” at this summer’s Milsatcom USA Conference.

By utilizing commercial satellites in conjunction with military satellites, the ecosystem of potential satellites that could be carrying military signals increases from ten to more than 150. This not only can help disrupt an adversary’s targeting calculus, but also provide back-ups should military satellites be denied. As Morris said at the same event, “You go after our [military-owned] systems, I’ve got something else that I can get to. Historically, with a lot of the weapon systems that are brought to bear in the modern age, it’s not the primary system that has been a hero, it’s the secondary system, because the enemy puts so much effort into taking out that primary system.”

With the potential to increase resiliency and bring new, innovative solutions to bear, it’s clear that commercial satellite needs to be a part of military plans in the future. So why wasn’t it in the vignette? Especially since it could have been so beneficial?

What could have been – and what will be
During Gen. Goldfein’s vignette, the two coalition military satellites being relied upon for communications in every other domain were jammed by adversary space assets. The response of the coalition forces in the vignette were to bomb targets deep in enemy territory and relocate military spacecraft – which is an extremely time-consuming and risky response.

How would that have played out if this futuristic force was utilizing a combined commercial and military satellite architecture?

First, the adversary would have struggled mightily to target the correct satellites. Today’s commercial satellite industry operates innovative new satellites in more orbits than just the traditional geostationary orbit. With more than 150 satellites in multiple different orbits – including GEO, MEO and LEO – that could have been transmitting military communications in theater, the adversary would have struggled mightily to identify which satellite to target for jamming or even kinetic attacks.

Should the adversary jammed or denied the correct satellites, the coalition forces in the vignette would have had an even easier, far less risky response should they have been using an integrated commercial and military satellite architecture. They simply could have relocated a digitally-steered beam from a different commercial satellite – possibly even one in a different orbit – to deliver high-throughput, low-latency connectivity to the battlefield.

No jets would have needed to be scrambled, no military satellites would have needed to expend precious fuel to be repositioned, and no pilots’ lives would have needed to be risked.

This is why Ken Peterman, the President of Government Systems at Viasat recently told attendees at a panel discussion during SATELLITE 2019 that, “…within government circles, support continues to build for a DoD, hybrid, multi-network adaptive enterprise so that the DoD has the improved resiliency, improved mobility and improved flexibility to take full advantage of commercial innovation.”

So, where do we stand with that “hybrid, multi-network adaptive enterprise,” or integrated commercial and military satellite architecture? I asked Gen. John Raymond, the Commander of United States Space Command, during a media roundtable at the Air, Space and Cyber Conference, and he assured us that it’s still on the table – even if it’s not in vignettes.

When asked about the potential to utilize satellites of different sizes and in different orbits, General Raymond responded, “I think what we’ll see in the future is a more hybrid architecture which would provide us with more resiliency.“ And adding commercial satellite to the military’s network architecture and infrastructure was also a priority for Gen. Raymond moving forward.

When asked about the timing and roadmap towards this combined architecture, the General responded, “[The Air Force] had several meetings with the commercial industry to partner with them on a vision going forward. I expect to publish a vision document towards that end in the coming months. We’re here to work with industry and I think that the relationships that we have and that were provided to us by the National Defense Authorization Act will provide us great advantage.”

Both the military and the satellite industry see the potential that an integrated commercial and military satellite architecture could have for our nation’s multi-domain operations in the future. If we’re going to truly win the battle for space and utilize satellites as part of a military response that will, “produce multiple dilemmas for our adversaries in a way that will overwhelm them,” then commercial satellite needs to be an integral part of the Air Force’s plans now and into the future.

Featured image courtesy of the Air Force Association.

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