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Air Force Exploring New Protected Satcom Concepts

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This article first appeared in Aerospace Daily & Defense Report.

The U.S. Air Force is laying the groundwork for a next-generation protected military satellite communications architecture with $84.3 million worth of contracts issued to 17 companies to explore a variety of options.

The studies kicked off last month and will continue for two years.

Today’s space-based protected milsatcom architecture consists of legacy Milstar satellites and two new Advanced Extremely High Frequency spacecraft made by Lockheed Martin. There are also payloads in polar orbit to reach areas in the extreme latitudes.

However, some in the space community question whether the Pentagon should consider a "disaggregated" architecture that allows for distributing the various functions of a protected communications satellite among different platforms. This could reduce the risk of a major service outage in the event a satellite becomes compromised, either for technical or more nefarious reasons.

An example would be to conduct the nuclear-hardened command-and-control mission on a separate platform from those handing tactical satcom needs. Today, those are collocated on large, expensive spacecraft.

The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, which manages the service’s satcom programs, issued the contracts in September following a broad agency announcement. The focus of the work is on protected tactical systems.

"The awards will enable the next generation protected tactical system by using an unclassified waveform that jointly meets the needs of multiple services across the Department of Defense while also addressing affordability," SMC officials said in an announcement last week. The work will support an acquisition in the fiscal year 2020 time frame, they say.

Among the requirements for tactical communications will be technologies to facilitate the continued use of unmanned aircraft, ground soldiers on the move and maritime operations for the Navy and Marine Corps.

Questions to be explored by the contractors include where best to put the processing function for data -- in the space segment or in terminals.

SMC has broken the contracts into levels of effort: "low-end" contractors, with work around $150,000, will participate in a working group while "high-end" contractors, with up to $10 million of work, will build hardware and execute some demonstrations and testing.

Contractors and their roles are as follows:

* For waveform development: Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, L-3 Communications, Hughes, ViaSat, Orbital, General Dynamics, Space Micro, Lockheed Martin, Hughes, and Arkham Technology Limited.

* For the protected space/ground segment design and demonstration: Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Space Systems Loral.

* For the gateway risk-reduction demonstration: Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

* For the mission planning and management demonstration: Boeing and Hughes.

* For terminal design and demonstration: Raytheon and L-3 Communications.

* For the terminal cryptographic component development and demonstration: ViaSat and L-3 Communications.

Credit: USAF

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