Fight SATCOM Concept Grows Closer to Reality
Elements of a new architecture to be prototyped this year.
By December 31, seven contractors working with the Air Force will deliver critical pieces of the Defense Department’s new satellite communications architecture. The architecture is designed to deliver greater agility, resilience and situational awareness.
The satellite communications (SATCOM) architecture is being developed to meet the Defense Department’s “Fighting SATCOM” concept. Fighting SATCOM is a U.S. Strategic Command and National Reconnaissance Office directed initiative. The objective is to improve communications agility, resiliency and situational awareness through the full spectrum of conflict—from a benign environment through a complex battlefield with highly contested, degraded and operationally limited communications.
“The idea for fighting SATCOM is the ability for the future enterprise to consolidate and integrate processes, resources and capabilities so that the U.S. Space Command can provide comprehensive mission management, which enables resilient, uninterrupted SATCOM for users,” explains Lt. Col. Gary Thompson, USAF, chief, Fighting SATCOM integration, Space and Missile Systems Center, U.S. Space Force. He adds that the integrated enterprise is also called Fighting SATCOM.
The Space and Missile Systems Center is working with seven companies to build prototypical elements of the architecture focused specifically on situational awareness and a common operating picture. The contracts were awarded as part of the Enterprise Management and Control (EM&C) program.
The companies are: Artel LLC; Kratos; Hughes Network Systems; Knight-Sky LLC; CodeMettle LLC; RKF Engineering Solutions LLC and Viasat Inc. They are mostly nontraditional defense contractors and received funds under so-called other transaction authorities, contracting vehicles designed for rapid prototyping.
Fighting SATCOM will take advantage of big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning to allow warfighters to smoothly transition from Defense Department SATCOM systems to those owned by international partners or commercial providers to ensure communications are always available. Col. Thompson explains that currently SATCOM systems and spectrum are stovepiped and do not allow warfighters the necessary flexibility to dominate the battlefield.
“Having the enterprise approach allows us to plan, apportion and allow a user to transition between services seamlessly when they get in a contested, degraded or operationally limited environment. That’s the genesis of what we’re doing here. We’re stitching together with a super glue all these various capabilities—current capabilities and future capabilities—to make sure they’re aligned,” the colonel states. “The biggest benefit is in the measurement of resiliency, ensuring that the users, when they log on to their SATCOM terminals, have a service that’s available to them that’s able to meet their operational needs against threats in the most operationally limited environments. That’s truly what we’re doing. That’s the true benefit at the end of the day.”
He also notes that resilience includes tackling the full array of threats. “It’s having the path redundancy; it’s having cyber hardness; it’s being able to operate in the most stressing of wartime conditions.”
Lowering costs is an additional benefit, he adds. “It’s also to get affordability and access to SATCOM in a benign environment as well. If you have choice, choice will drive costs down as well. It increases competition.”
The EM&C effort should achieve some major milestones in the coming months. For example, the contractors should be demonstrating capabilities this calendar year. “Throughout this year here, we’re going to be proving out these capabilities, mostly focused on situational awareness and a common operating picture,” Col. Thompson says.
And then next year, those prototypes will undergo a process known as development, security and operations, or DevSecOps. “The next step is this fiscal year 2021 effort where we take the most operationally aligned and ready prototypes, and we integrate them into a software factory pipeline using DevSecOps to deliver those capabilities rapidly, the colonel reports. “It’s not good for us to prototype something and then not have a transition plan for that capability to be used operationally in a sustained and accredited and cyber-hardened environment.”
The first minimally viable prototypes will be delivered by December 31, assuming no budgetary issues arise. That initial delivery will be followed by incremental improvements. “With DevSecOps, you do this continuous integration, continuous delivery of capability. Our block zero capability would be in fiscal year 21,” Col. Thompson notes. Fiscal year 2022 includes a funding request for elements other than situational awareness and the common operating picture, including planning and orchestration, security and an integrated data environment.
He adds that his team is currently building a “DevSecOps platform and our software factory pipeline aligned with the prototyping effort that’s being done so that we can rapidly transition these capabilities to the users.”
Using the rapid prototyping process has provided one perhaps unexpected benefit. “One thing that’s been remarkable is that our work has enabled some significant amount of cross sharing between these companies. … We got to see a lot of collaboration between our awardees where they’re sharing and collaborating and trying to make their products better by doing a lot of the integration. We’re seeing a lot of collaboration and partnership going on right now that I don’t think we would have seen if we had gone through a traditional acquisition,” Col. Thompson offers.
Rather than competing against one another, the contractors are each building a different piece of the SATCOM architecture puzzle. “Nobody is solving the same problem. If I say a term like situational awareness, it’s different if I have a terrestrial sensor versus an integrated part of a SATCOM terminal that can provide real-time utilization and capability back. It’s different when I look to a large service provider that can give me insights into their constellation. All these things are different, but the integration of them gets to where we’re looking with a common operating picture,” he elaborates.
He stresses the importance of data to a common operating picture and says that artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning will be necessary to take advantage of that data. “A common operating picture is different based on the various users we’re looking at supporting. We’re looking at having data accessible, doing smart filtering on that data, and then doing the right processing and fusion of data so that it can enable decision analytics to the user based on their role,” he says. “Large data analytics, machine learning, AI, counter-AI, all these capabilities are of high interest to us. We’re continuing to do market research, and we’re seeing some of this coming into our prototypes through our vendors.”
The new, cutting-edge capabilities have been an “eye-opener,” in the colonel’s words. “The new systems are much more modern and much more capable, so to be able to utilize those to the extent of their capability takes a modern approach to planning and orchestration and collaboration between the systems. If we find ways we can exploit these capabilities, we can get a lot more capacity and utilization,” Col. Thompson states.
One of the remaining challenges to be tackled in the 2021 fiscal year is resolving how to measure resilience. That will help determine the right blend of SATCOM resources for warfighters. “If I start to overlay various satellite capabilities for a user to meet their requests in a certain theater or operating environment, how do I know that we have enough in the right types of SATCOM to meet their needs? We’re starting some studies right now, and we’ll do some follow on. Our next set of prototypes is going to be measurements of resiliency. Those are the metrics that we’re trying to define and the most important ones going forward,” Col. Thompson asserts.