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Protecting satcom without going broke

The U.S. military faces a satellite communications conundrum. It’s convinced that in a hot war, China and other countries wouldn’t hesitate to throw everything they have at American satellites and the drone video and battle orders they carry. Everything means kinetic anti-satellite weapons like the one China launched at one of its own satellites in 2007; lasers or microwaves; cyber attacks on command and control stations; and old-fashioned jamming.

Mobile User Objective System antenna, Hawaii (Credit: U.S. Navy)

Here’s the conundrum: The Pentagon knows, or should know, that it’s in no position to stay ahead the way it did in the Cold War – by starting massive R&D programs followed by multibillion dollar industry competitions and weapon procurements.

So what to do?

Enter the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. The Washington, D.C., think tank offers some bold recommendations in a report unveiled in Washington this week by Rep. Doug Lamborn, the Colorado Republican whose district includes Air Force Space Command.

The report, “The Future of Milsatcom,” was written by satellite technologist Todd Harrison, a former Air Force reservist and Booz Allen Hamilton employee.

For starters, Harrison says claiming a military communications satellite is not a weapon would be like saying an M-16 is "merely an enabling capability for the ammunition." With U.S. satellites beaming spy video and battle commands around the world, it's naïve to think space won’t be militarized. “From the perspective of other nations, U.S. military space systems are weapon systems, and space is a domain of warfare that can and will be contested,” he writes.

The best the U.S. can do is steer the space competition in a more favorable direction. He wants the country to rely on frequency hopping and other passive defenses, plus operational workarounds like processing videos on board unmanned planes -- only the nuggets would be sent to analysts via satellite.

Harrison’s other top recommendations:

Don’t go bankrupt arming satellites >>

• “…instead of developing shoot-back capabilities in space, DoD could invest in improving its capability to attack the source of ASAT threats on Earth.”

• Avoid playing into an adversary’s hands: “….the attacker will have an inherent cost advantage because the cost of building more anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons is likely to be significantly less than the cost of deploying additional shoot back or escort satellites.”

Add a middle ground between protected, unprotected comms >>

Today, tactical comms rely on unprotected commercial and government satellites or the same highly-protected satellites the president would use in a nuclear crisis: “A new middle tier of protection could be created to extend a lower level of protection to more tactical users. It would be funded by drawing resources from unprotected SATCOM programs, potentially using hosted protected payloads to expand capacity at a lower cost."

Ask Pacific allies for help >>

More deals could be done like the bandwidth-sharing agreement the U.S. reached with Australia in exchange for paying for a Wideband Global Satcom spacecraft: “As part of its rebalancing to the Asia/Pacific region, the United States could partner with Japan, South Korea, and Australia to host protected Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) payloads on one or more of their satellites in exchange for limited use of the global AEHF constellation.”

Get the Navy and Army out of the space business >>

The Army runs the satellite operations centers for the Wideband Global Satcom payloads, and the Navy runs the Mobile User Objective System satellite network for the other services and intelligence community. One service could manage it all more efficiently: “The Air Force would be the most likely candidate to assume this responsibility, since it already manages the largest share of the MILSATCOM enterprise.”

Fewer people means fewer bad ideas >>

“...the staffs of existing program offices should be reduced to limit the number of people thinking of ways to change requirements. A staff reduction would also allow the contractors building the systems to reduce their overhead costs since they would not need as many people assigned to interface with program office personnel."

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