Crisis Pending in Military Satellite Communications

The U.S. Defense Department must make tough decisions to ensure uninterrupted connections.

As the components of the celestial network that ties commanders to troops enter into middle age and in many cases retirement, the U.S. Defense Department must take quick action to protect warfighters’ safety and homeland security. The challenge military leaders and procurement officers face is the urgency of the need. After all, communications satellites aren’t cellphones or drones and can’t be bought at the local tech store. Instead, meeting U.S. military communications capabilities needs by 2025 will require changing the location of a satellite already in orbit.

The Defense Department maintains three major types of satellite constellations: protected, wideband and narrowband. In general, strategic nuclear forces use the protected systems employing the Military Strategic and Tactical Relay, or Milstar, and advanced extremely high frequency satellites. Big data and intelligence missions use the wideband systems employing the Wideband Global SATCOM system.

Warfighters use the narrowband systems principally consisting of the military legacy UHF satellite communications. These satellites are their support lifelines when they are traveling in harm’s way or are under fire, and the system is dying.

The Fleet Satellite and Ultrahigh Frequency Follow-on (UFO) satellites comprising legacy military ultrahigh frequency (UHF) satellite communications are all past their designed lifespan. However, slow fielding of the higher capacity mobile user objective system (MUOS) wideband code division multiple access (WCDMA) terminals necessitates continued reliance on this dying legacy UHF, hence the crisis.

Because The Boeing Company is the sole corporate owner of the data rights to the legacy communications capability, the Defense Department must have high confidence in Boeing’s ability to place in orbit a satellite comparable to the UFO 11. Consequently, the department must secure a sole-source contract with Boeing for replacement satellites. Otherwise, U.S. men and women could be wounded or killed simply because the call for help could not get through.

The failure of the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS), which was intended to revolutionize military UHF communications, laid the foundation for the current satellite communications crisis. Essentially, the vision for the radio made it too complex to be practically produced.

As a result, the first and the remainder of the MUOS satellites had to be redesigned to accommodate the 5 kilohertz (kHz) and 25 kHz channels of legacy UHF systems, giving each MUOS satellite the equivalent of a UFO 11 capacity. However, the primary function of those satellites is to accommodate WCDMA signaling from the satellite terminals that replaced the failed radios.

Until the military services can fully populate the MUOS WCDMA system, a bridge service is needed. Although UHF legacy communications are provided on the legacy payloads of the five MUOS satellites, the capability fills less than 25 percent of the communications capabilities required. In addition, because building additional MUOS satellites could take as long as eight years, this system alone isn’t a reasonable solution.

In sum, there isn’t any residue capacity. The Defense Department could look to commercial satellite leased service corporations, such as Inmarsat, Intelsat, SES, Telesat, Iridium or Globalstar to provide hosted payloads. However, Iridium and Globalstar are nonfunctional because they could not host a UHF payload, and the earth terminals could not communicate with them if they could.

The inability of the JTRS to deliver the multiple capabilities promised, combined with the length of time necessary to build a new satellite, have ultimately resulted in two problems to solve: addressing the reduced availability of lifeline communications legacy UHF essentially for troops and long deployment delays of the WCDMA terminals/radios that are replacing the JTRS.

Other available military UHF capacity is one possible solution. For example, Intelsat’s IS-22 has 18 operational 25 kHz channels and was launched in 2012. Australia’s Optus C1, which launched in 2003 and is reaching end of life, has six UHF channels.

In addition, other capabilities exist on the British Skynet 5 satellites, which have up to nine UHF channels each and also provide spare capability to NATO. According to Global Data, the U.K. Ministry of Defence awarded Airbus Defence and Space, through its subsidiary Paradigm Secure Communications, a private finance initiative contract worth approximately $6.69 billion in October 2003 to provide Skynet 5 satellite services up to 2020, and a $598 million contract in March 2010 extending the procurement of satellite communication services up to at least 2022. Skynet 6 is expected to be operational by 2025.

Also, some experts suggest low-earth-orbit satellites, especially from the new mega-constellations, could act as a satellite communications resource. However, these spacecraft travel around the globe at a rate of approximately 4 to 6 degrees per minute, making them entirely impractical given the wide beam widths and mobile and stationary configurations in which the military UHF terrestrial infrastructure operates.

A less unlikely resource could be the O3b commercial constellation, which is positioned in medium earth orbit. But the eight-satellite constellation has shown that idea to be impractical because a typical helix antenna would have the narrowest UHF beam width but would still be too wide to track a single satellite without interfering with others.

Another option could be eased commercial satellite phone services, which have the advantage of eliminating upfront costs and paying for only those services used. However, commercial satellite phone services are not reserved; therefore, availability in emergencies or for military tactical or strategic purposes cannot be ensured. A far more serious disadvantage is that the higher frequency and therefore smaller wavelength is subject to interference from environmental obstacles.

To solve the problem of diminishing legacy UHF, the Defense Department must purchase new satellites quickly, but there are also problems with this solution. Boeing, SSL, Airbus, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, SICRAL and Lockheed Martin have experience. However, Lockheed Martin subcontracted its legacy UHF components to Boeing, and Raytheon no longer appears to be interested in military UHF.

On the international scene, companies in NATO countries do possess two prominent capabilities. According to Defense News, Airbus is now building the Skynet 6A satellite. As with Skynet 5, the UHF package is being constructed internally. Skynet 6A will probably replace one of the Skynet satellites now being used, so its use would have to be coordinated with the U.K. Ministry of Defence prior to any negotiations.

SICRAL-Telespazio also has a capability. SICRAL 2 started from April 2015 with an estimated operational life span of 15 years. The satellite payload operates in the UHF and super high frequency bands and supports satellite communications for the Italian and French armed forces, anticipating the needs of growth and development in the next few years. Although this appears to be one solution to the United States’ immediate need for satellite communications capabilities, one problem exists: SICRAL-Telespazio equipment isn’t located within the United States.

Intelsat could provide a replication of the IS-22/IS-27 payload, which has 20 channels of 25 kHz. Programmatic considerations would be less difficult because the company has experience. The spacecraft bus could be controlled from dual redundant Intelsat control centers located in Maryland and California, and the U.S. government rather than Intelsat or a third party could directly control the UHF network. However, the challenge is that the satellite is being built primarily to provide Intelsat services and therefore could not be moved without negotiation, which could take years longer than the military has to solve the satellite communications problem.

Beyond its worldwide coverage, Inmarsat has some tactical and structural advantages as the host for a UHF payload. The company’s gateways are located in NATO or Five Eyes countries, and the U.S. military could use multiple mobile satellite bands from the same satellite. In addition, because each transmission goes through two gateways simultaneously, a certain degree of security is available in a contested environment.

Inmarsat is planning to launch two satellites in 2023, so some diversity might be possible using only that system if locations can be agreed upon and a somewhat unlikely sole-source contract could be let. As with Intelsat, the satellite is primarily being built to provide Inmarsat service and could not be moved; once again, negotiation could take years longer than the capability must be made available.

The Defense Department has few options for provisioning immediate or even near-term satellite communications capabilities to U.S. warfighters. Military leaders must decide if they will make a quick deal with U.S. providers to purchase commercial services, agree to a sole-source contract with Boeing with a quick turnaround date or collaborate with its allies to ensure security for all. If decision makers do not choose one or some combination of these options quickly, warfighters could be killed or wounded simply because a call for help couldn’t go through.


Col. Jim Mazzei, USAF (Ret.), spent his career in military satellites and currently teaches the AFCEA class in military satellite communications. Since retiring, Col. Mazzei has worked in many technical positions, ranging from field engineer to chief technology officer, and in management positions from satellite site manager to division manager. He is in the instructor of AFCEA International’s Military Satellite Communications in a Net-Centric Communications World professional development on-site course.