Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a breakfast event hosted by C4ISR and sponsored by SES Space and Defense entitled, “Assured Communications 2016.” The morning conference brought together senior military decision-makers – such as Winston Beauchamp, the Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force for Space, Dr. Jeremy Palmer, the Project Manager for DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, and Eron J. Miller, the Chief of DISA’s SATCOM Division – with industry experts to discuss challenges confronting our military in space. The forum provided everyone another opportunity to discuss ways that our military and private industry can work together to overcome those challenges.
The event kicked off with a keynote address by Mr. Beauchamp who began his remarks by detailing the increasingly contested environment that the U.S. faces in space, as well as the sheer importance and pervasiveness that space capabilities have in our war fighting and military operations.
According to Mr. Beauchamp, “Not a plane flies, not a ship sails, not a vehicle moves out without space – whether it’s for communications or if it’s for position and navigation, or with the fore-knowledge brought to us by ISR from air and space. It’s key to every part of military operations.”
Unfortunately, our adversaries have noticed our reliance on space – and have acted accordingly. Countries have put a lot of effort and resources towards replicating US space technologies and capabilities for themselves. Scarier yet, those same countries are actively working to deny our military advantage by negatively impacting our spacecraft and satellite communications.
Mr. Beauchamp illustrated this shift in space when he said, “The decisive advantage that space brings to military operations has been the deciding factor in every military operation conducted to protect our interests around the world – or protect our allies when they’re in need. There are those around the world that have realized how we use space in our military operations and have taken steps to develop capabilities that would both replicate the significant advantages that space brings to the U.S. and its allies, as well as potentially deny those advantages to us as well.”
This increasingly contested environment is new to our nation’s military, and requires a new approach to the way the federal government has traditionally approached satellites and space. According to Mr. Beauchamp, “We’ve largely designed and built our systems for efficiency…in an environment where technology is expensive and launch costs tend to dominate. The result is…over the past few decades we’ve aggregated more and more functionality on larger and larger systems. If we’re going to have to launch it anywhere, might as well put more capabilities on it.”
That approach worked for the uncontested space environment of the past. After all, what was possibly going to happen to these large, high capacity satellites? Threats were relatively easy to define.
However, today’s contested space environment presents a very different challenge and requires a much different approach. As a result, the Department of Defense is actively assessing how they should address future satellite architectures needs.
As Mr. Beauchamp stated, “We have operated for many years under the premise that space was a free good for all and that access to space is an important priority. As others develop the means to deny U.S. space capabilities, we have to start thinking differently about how we design and develop these systems and cooperate with industry to exist and survive the potential contested environment.”
How do we think differently in these areas? First, we shift the focus away from aggregating all military space communications and capabilities onto as few satellites as possible for the sake of efficiency and, instead, focus on resiliency. This means proliferation of satellite capabilities over many more satellites that are harder to identify and target.
When discussing the potential for kinetic and jamming incidents, Mr. Beauchamp said, “…in that environment, I’d like to be able to proliferate capability and spread out my requirements over multiple nodes. I’d rather be a five percent owner in 100 satellites than a 100 percent owner of five satellites.”
Leveraging commercially hosted payloads and the wide array of global COMSATCOM capacity, the military can effectively distribute their satellite capabilities over a wider number of satellites instead of concentrating these capabilities onto a few satellites, thus complicating a potential adversaries targeting calculus.
Another solution that the COMSATCOM industry brings to the contested environment is a new satellite technology that many satellite providers are either in the process of launching, or will soon be launching – high throughput satellites (HTS). These next-generation satellites either eschew wide beams entirely for smaller, spot beam, or offer a combination of both.
The smaller spot beams, along with digital technologies, provides baked-in anti-jamming capability that can help ensure communications even in the face of sophisticated jamming attempts. These spot beams are smaller, making it more difficult to jam from inside the beam. Multiple beams can also be steered to create an area of connectivity around a malicious actor working to jam communications. These abilities, coupled with the increased throughput, make HTS another viable commercial option that could increase the security and resiliency of the DoD’s space efforts.
Mr. Beauchamp elaborated on the potential for jamming and how HTS can help when he said, “In DoD, interference is called jamming, and adversaries have become very good at it. We’ve seen a couple of events just recently where folks that had previously kept those jamming capabilities under wraps have unveiled them to make a point. And it’s widely understood that many potential conflicts in the future…[that] the United States and its allies will face a contested jamming environment. So, we want to make use of the commercial capabilities to use small beams, digitally form those beams and potentially use multiple beams to null out sources of jamming.”
It’s quite clear that space is no longer a benign environment. It’s also clear that Mr. Beauchamp is actively looking to leverage the commercial industry in a way that harmonizes the best available commercial and military satellite technologies for our warfighters.
For video of this exciting satellite event, click HERE. For additional information on hosted payloads and high-throughput satellites, click on the following resources: