Lockheed Martin's Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) System
While the possibility of anti-satellite weapons, jamming and cyber-attacks aimed at the U.S. military’s fleets of communication satellites is making them vulnerable to adversaries, declining defense budgets constitute an equal threat to the space architecture the services rely upon, according to a report released July 24.
Like the Maginot Line that gave the French a false sense of security prior to the German Blitzkrieg in World War II, the U.S. military has assumed since the end of the Cold War that no one would dare launch an physical attack on its satellites because that would violate international norms. Just as the Germans did away with such niceties and invaded France through a neighboring country, an adversary could go after one of the military’s biggest Achilles’ heels, its space-based communication system, said Todd Harrison, senior fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, and author of a new report, “The Future of Milsatcom.”
China used an anti-satellite weapon in 2007 to destroy a spacecraft and demonstrate its capabilities, Harrison pointed out at a presentation on Capitol Hill. An adversary could also launch so-called killer satellites that can carry out an attack on nearby spacecraft. Terrestrially, communication satellites are vulnerable to jamming or the interception of data. There is even the possibility that a cyber-attack could allow an enemy to take control of a satellite, he said.
“As the space domain has become more crowded, and contested, and we have become more dependant on its capabilities, our space systems have not adjusted to take into account the new reality that they face,” Harrison said. “In short, we have been making juicier targets for our adversaries in a conventional conflict.”
The problem is how to address these problems in an era of fiscal restraint, he said. Building satellites that could protect themselves by shooting down anti-satellite missiles or killer spacecraft would be costly, and an adversary could simply build more space weapons, he said. Passive defenses such as nuclear hardening, frequency hopping to prevent jamming, and encryption are also expensive.
As part of the rebalancing to the Pacific region, the military could ask allies such as South Korea, Australia and Japan to invest in the Advanced-EHF highly protected communication satellites. That could serve as a deterrent. An attack on one spacecraft would be an attack on all the allied nations, he said.
Other means to make systems less vulnerable would be to disperse their capabilities and payloads on several platforms — a concept known as disaggregation — having replacement satellites ready to launch on short notice, and setting up terrestrial communication systems as backups, the report said.
Each of these ideas cost money and all have their shortcomings, he noted.
Meanwhile, the military is at a crossroads when it comes to deciding what it will do next as far as fielding next-generation military communications satellites. The Air Force is launching the Advanced-EHF and Wideband Global Satcom spacecraft and the Navy is deploying its Mobile User Objective System (MUOS).
Since it takes so long to develop and field new satellites — and most of these will be defunct in 10 to 15 years — the time to decide what to do next is now, Harrison said. The services declining to make a decision today is in fact a decision, because that means they will be forced to continue launching the three milsatcom models when the ones currently in orbit stop functioning next decade.
That is fine with Harrison. The fiscal realities the military is facing means that the services should not be starting new milsatcom programs, which have a terrible reputation for delays and cost overruns, he said. They should evolve the current generation’s capabilities, he added. He advocated laying off or transferring personnel in the offices that oversee these programs to avoid “temptation” and “so we have fewer people sitting around thinking up new requirements,” he said.
“There are inherent risks in starting new programs. … We should do everything we can to leverage the current programs that we have, namely Advanced-EHF, to evolve new capabilities,” he said. “The idea here is evolution, not revolution, and this is driven by the simple fiscal reality.”
The report had several recommendations to stop the “vicious cycle of space acquisition.”
First, all space programs including the ground-based terminals that link soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines should all be under one service, the most likely candidate being the Air Force, he said. One of the most notorious problems in the space acquisition world is that terminals and satellite programs are not synchronized, resulting in spacecraft such as the Navy’s MUOS being launched when the Army hasn’t completed work on the software waveform that would connect them to radios and other communication devices.
Satellite operations and their budgets should all be under this one organization, he added. That would reduce overhead. “By aligning program budgets and authorities under one command structure you could actually do things like synchronization better,” he said.
Also, Harrison said SpaceX, the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company developing a heavy lift rocket, has the potential to lower the cost of launching satellites if it should ever be allowed to compete with the evolved expendable launch vehicle, which has a monopoly on the U.S. heavy lift market for government satellites.
But competition isn’t always good, Harrison said. Many small companies rely on military satellite programs as their only source of income. But with so few new spacecraft being built, they are at risk of going belly up. There is nothing wrong with sole source contracts to keep them in business, he added.
“It may cost the government less overall than an artificial competition that pays a second contractor to perform redundant development work operate a redundant production line,” the report said.