Space Force unveils vision for integrated SATCOM architecture

Centralized management and interoperability, achieved in part via flexible user terminals, are among the keys to delivering satellite communications (SATCOM) capabilities efficiently and reliably to U.S. warfighters using a combination of commercial and government-owned satellite systems, according to the newly created U.S. Space Force.

Bringing SATCOM requirements planning and acquisition together under a single roof will help eliminate stovepipes that have created inefficiencies across this enterprise, the Space Force said in a recently released white paper outlining its future SATCOM vision. Interoperability between government and commercial systems operating in different bandwidths and orbits-will further enhance integration while enabling warfighters to stay connected in contested environments, the paper said.

Approved in January and publicly released in February, the paper “United States Space Force Vision for Satellite Communications,” offers a roadmap to a future SATCOM architecture that is ubiquitous, resilient and dynamically responsive to the immediate needs of U.S. and allied forces. Among the other capabilities it identified as necessary to getting there are full situational awareness across the SATCOM enterprise, cyber security and the ability to quickly reallocate resources in response to emergent requirements.

“In order for the United States to maintain its asymmetric advantage of global space-based communications, the SATCOM enterprise must evolve quickly,” the paper states. “We must prepare now to fight SATCOM as a single enterprise through a contested, degraded and operationally-limited (CDO) environment, prevent or withstand loss, and continue to deliver effects to warfighters.”

The vision statement comes amid a sweeping reorganization of the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) space enterprise to better deal with emerging threats and requirements. A first step in that direction was the transfer of commercial SATCOM acquisition responsibility from the Defense Information Systems Agency to what is now the Space Force, which was subsequently established in legislation designed to consolidate and strengthen space capabilities across the military services.

Stakeholders in the defense SATCOM sector have been engaged a long-running policy debate over the role of commercial services in the overall military architecture, which is built largely around government-owned capabilities. Commercial satellite operators have argued that they could handle a larger share of the core requirements through a more integrated approach to SATCOM requirements planning and acquisition.

In a press release accompanying the release of the paper, the Space Force said it will “continue engaging commercial partners to evaluate opportunities that may complement or possibly replace portions of a traditional military SATCOM purpose built system.”

Jon Bennett, Vice President of Government Affairs at SES Space and Defense, the government services arm of global satellite operator SES, welcomed the new vision.

“What we’re seeing here is a recognition by the Space Force that SATCOM architecture choices that fully take into account the commercial sector’s substantial and growing capabilities will result in the best outcome for our men and women in uniform,” Bennett said. “That said, it remains incumbent on us as an industry to continue to innovate and field capabilities that are responsive to the government’s needs.”

Although full integration of military-owned and commercial SATCOM capabilities has taken longer than advocates had hoped, the White House’s recently released 2021 budget request brought additional evidence of movement in that direction. The Space Force portion of the request includes $43 million under a new line item called Fighting SATCOM Enterprise, to be used in part to “integrate the tools to provide SATCOM capability to global warfighters and improve resilience and operational agility in CDO environments by leveraging DoD and commercial systems, capabilities and products to deliver connectivity to users in all operational conditions.”

The white paper highlights the importance of commercial systems to maintaining SATCOM links in CDO environments.

“The enterprise will leverage DoD and commercial systems, capabilities, and products to deliver connectivity to users in all operational conditions, especially in CDO environments,” the paper states. “Within tactically-relevant timelines, it will quickly reroute users and their networks to other SATCOM resources and dynamically adjust to any unpredictable CDO environment.”

This will depend on flexible user terminals compatible with satellites operating in different bandwidths and possibly orbits, the paper said.

Although most communications satellite systems operate in geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers above the equator, companies are increasingly looking to lower orbits to provide different capabilities. SES Space and Defense, for example, provides access to both geostationary and Medium Earth Orbit satellites, the latter providing low-latency, fiber-like links that are needed for certain military applications.

“A single, integrated SATCOM enterprise will deliver unparalleled options to joint warfighters for mission success,” the paper states. “Compared to today’s collection of stovepiped SATCOM systems, the enterprise will deliver the performance and resilience necessary to address a 21st century contested space domain.”

Feature Image: Gen. Jay Raymond, Chief of Space Operations, U.S. Space Force, and Commander, U.S. Space Command, recently signed the USSF Vision for Enterprise Satellite Communications (SATCOM). (DoD photo by Patrick Morrow)

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