Space Monitoring Undergoes Extreme Makeover

October 2010
By Maryann Lawlor, SIGNAL Magazine
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Lt. Gen. Larry D. James, USAF (l), commander, 14th Air Force, Air Force Space Command, and commander, Joint Functional Component Command for Space (JFCC–Space), receives a briefing from Lt. Col. Brent McArthur, USAF, commander, 3rd Space Operations Squadron (SOPS), during a tour of the 3rd SOPS at Schriever Air Force Base.

Component command transforms inside and out.

A multitude of changes underway at U.S. Strategic Command are revolutionizing the U.S. Defense Department’s place in space. In addition to the three Wideband Global SATCOM satellites currently in orbit, the command is discussing how the commercial sector can continue to support its missions, and its JointSpaceOperationsCenter is undergoing not just a facelift but what can be considered a total remodeling. In addition, the command is boosting its outreach through the influence it now has with its authority over the Commercial and Foreign Entities Program.

Lt. Gen. Larry D. James, USAF, commander, 14th Air Force, Air Force Space Command, and commander, Joint Functional Component Command for Space (JFCC–Space), U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, oversees the strategic activities around the JFCC–Space. A number of advances under his command that are aiding in missions are especially remarkable, he says.

Late last year, the last of the Block One Wideband Global System (WGS) satellites took its place on orbit to provide support to the combatant commands at 10 times the capacity of the Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS) III. The WGS are purported to be the U.S. Defense Department’s most capable and powerful communication satellites, designed to provide near-term continuation and augmentation of the services the DSCS and the Global Broadcast Service offer.

Among the capabilities the WGS supports are the execution of tactical command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; battle management; and combat support information. Each WGS satellite can route data at 2.1 to 3.6 gigabits per second.

Another improvement falls under the general heading of Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS), which is the continuation of the Defense Support Program constellation. Combined, these systems support missile warning, missile defense, technical intelligence and battlespace awareness by providing the overhead persistent infrared, or OPIR, capability. SBIRS features geosynchronous satellites, payloads in highly elliptical orbits and groundstation hardware and software. The general explains that their sensors are more flexible and sensitive than those of the Defense Support Program.

Among the top priorities of the JFCC–Space is ensuring that collisions of space-faring objects do not occur. This mission requires a great deal of sophisticated equipment, but Gen. James points out that in some cases they are noticed by nontechnical means prior to being confirmed by technology. For example, the collision between the defunct Russian Cosmos 2251 and an Iridium satellite in February 2009 initially was detected by a savvy JFCC–Space captain.

The general relates that the Global Satellite Communications (SATCOM) SupportCenter called the JointSpaceOperationsCenter (JSpOC) crew commander on the operations floor relaying a report from Iridium Communications Incorporated about a loss of data from their satellite. Although this occurs from time to time, “This smart, young captain took it upon himself to call for an assessment to see if something else could have happened. He tasked the right sensors to go take a look, and sure enough, instead of the two satellite bodies that he expected to see, he saw multiple objects. He immediately got that information up to me; we got it up to Washington and up to STRATCOM, and did all the right things. It was really because the captain on the ops floor as a crew commander made the right call, made the right decision and did the right things that we knew a collision had occurred,” the general shares with pride in his voice.

With more than 20,000 manmade spaceborne objects orbiting above the Earth, including approximately 1,000 active satellites that are tracked every day, acute situational awareness helps avoid these types of incidents. For this reason, the JFCC–Space is executing Space-Based Space Surveillance. This capability will improve the command’s ability to track objects in the geo-belt better than it currently can from the ground, Gen. James states.

In addition to gathering information, sharing space situational awareness with the owners and operators of other objects resident in space will help prevent collisions. One boost in this arena came from Congress when, in January 2010, it endorsed a pilot program that began in 2004 by giving STRATCOM command authority over the Commercial and Foreign Entities Program. The program enables the JSpOC to provide space situational awareness information and analysis to government and commercial space operators worldwide.

The commercial sector has a lot to offer the military in terms of information and ideas, the general notes. For example, discussions have taken place between the U.S. military and the Space Data Association Limited, Colorado Springs, Colorado. The association is a consortium comprising commercial satellite companies INTELSAT, Inmarsat and SES Astra. Gen. James emphasizes that no agreement has been reached; however, options are being reviewed, because commercial satellites host a number of sensors that could enhance situational awareness.


2nd Lt. Melissa Huffman, USAF, a collections analyst for the 614th Air and Space Operations Center, reviews launch data at the Joint Space Operations Center, or JSpOC. The center is the focal point for the operational employment of worldwide joint space forces and enables the JFCC–Space commander to integrate space power into global military operations.

Outer space is not the only place that requires acute situational awareness. The JSpOC has operated for years using equipment that has been brought together piecemeal. To improve efficiencies, the JFCC–Space is updating its mission-specific information systems. It is moving to a service-oriented architecture (SOA), which will be the baseline where all data resides and new data will be added. The SOA is scheduled for delivery this fall and for deployment on the operations floor later this year, Gen. James relates. It will be populated later with applications that support execution of the JSpOC’s missions, particularly increasing the accuracy of space objects situational awareness, missile warning systems, and intelligence fusion systems, he adds.

The dramatic growth of the number of seafaring nations is one reason for this multitude of improvements at the JFCC–Space. Gen. James notes that even countries such as Algeria, which may not have the capability to build or launch spacecraft, are still able to purchase access to capabilities such as electro-optical satellite sensing.

But keeping tabs on other nations’ as well as U.S. satellites is only one reason for these numerous improvements. Communications and military operations are no longer the only uses for space assets. Today, countries worldwide have become dependent on these highflying birds of communications to facilitate connections during natural disasters.

For example, during the crisis following the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile earlier this year, the U.S. government took advantage of an industry-Defense Department partnership as it helped provide communications via the hosted payload Internet Routing in Space (IRIS). Gen. James explains that this capability supported communications in Haiti immediately following the disaster. In addition, the Tactical Satellite-3, which transitioned from an Air Force Research Laboratory experimental demonstration to an operational asset at Air Force Space Command in June, was used to provide imagery of the area to support organizations.

Cooperation between industry and the government already has resulted in several mutually beneficial arrangements. For example, it is estimated that the commercial sector provides more than 70 percent of the communication connections that occur in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Commercial satellite providers have been frustrated by the government’s lack of planning in this area (SIGNAL Magazine, April 2010). To address this issue, Defense Department officials from the highest levels have been meeting with satellite companies’ chief executive officers on a regular basis. Representatives from the government have included Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley; STRATCOM Commander Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, USAF; Gen. James; and representatives from the Defense Information Systems Agency. The agency continues to be the manager for defense acquisition of commercial SATCOM. It has been moving forward to determine how to work better with industry to buy capacity and how to make requirements more predictable, the general shares.

“I think we are moving in the right direction to accomplish those two goals and to help commercial companies see us as a stable buyer with a fixed set of requirements that we can build off of if the need spikes. Also, we have the three WGS up there now, so those are equivalent to three DSCS constellations—which we didn’t have before—providing military satellite communications,” Gen. James relates.

But the general believes that industry has more to offer than simply telecommunications capacity. The military space community faces a number of problems that companies can help solve. He agrees that processes for acquiring information technology and command and control systems are not fast enough. He believes that industry can offer suggestions about how to facilitate this process and has met with contractors to determine how they can deliver certified and accredited products to the military faster.

In addition, Gen. James believes the commercial sector can teach the military how to continue to improve command and control, while reducing the amount of staff members required. He poses the question: “How do we manage better?”

In terms of data fusion, the military certainly can use industry’s help. Because sensors—both space- and earthbound—deliver so much information today, it is important to determine how to manage it so that the right data can be delivered at the right time to the right person in the right place. Companies achieve this activity daily, in fact, often to the second, he adds.

Gen. James points out that businesses also must operate at multiple levels of security—high, medium and low—on a daily basis. He believes that the U.S. military could use some of these models when collaborating with coalition partners. “At the end of the day, it is about providing capabilities for the combatant commands and the warfighters,” the general states.

Joint Functional Component Command for Space:
U.S. Strategic Command:
Space Data Association Limited:
Iridium-Cosmos collision video: