• A 173rd Airborne Brigade soldier conducts a radio check during an exercise at the Hohenfels Training Area, Germany. New satellites will extend the range of many tactical communications systems beyond line of sight, providing global reach. Sgt. Henry Villarama, USA
     A 173rd Airborne Brigade soldier conducts a radio check during an exercise at the Hohenfels Training Area, Germany. New satellites will extend the range of many tactical communications systems beyond line of sight, providing global reach. Sgt. Henry Villarama, USA

Global Tactical Connectivity Abounds for Warfighters

June 1, 2022
By Kimberly Underwood
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Space Development Agency construct will provide key tactical radio communications.

The three-year-old Space Development Agency, which was charged with rapidly developing a successful National Defense Space Architecture, is on track for providing increased global tactical connectivity to the warfighter through the widespread, legacy Link-16 radio capability.

The Space Development Agency (SDA) awarded $1.8 billion in prototype agreements to three companies in March to provide 126 optically interconnected satellites to be part of a mesh network providing a resilient, low-latency, high-volume data transport communication system, with a planned associated launch of the space vehicles starting in September 2024. Each of the vendors—York Space Systems, Lockheed Martin Space and Northrop Grumman Strategic Space Systems—will deliver 42 homogenous satellites in the so-called Tranche 1 effort that will create the first part of the Transport Layer of the National Defense Space Architecture.

The Tranche 1 Transport Layer will provide two near-polar low-Earth orbital planes of the six-plane architecture, according to SDA Director Derek Tournear, who spoke to reporters on a call with the Defense Writers Group. And while Link 16 radio capabilities presently offer a certain level of connectivity, the Tranche 1 series of satellites will connect the warfighter in ways never seen before, Tournear explains.

“What we have today are tactical data links that allow weapons platforms to talk to one another but they can essentially only do that basically within a line of sight, a few hundred nautical miles,” the SDA director says. “Tranche 1 will allow that reach to essentially be a global connectivity, a global network, the key to tying in all of the sensors and shooters together to that global tactical data link. All of the satellites will be able to have connectivity in plane and crossplane and to Link 16 down to the ground.”

The ability to reach tactical environments with communication and data links will be a game changer, Tournear stresses.

“For the warfighter on the front line, depending on the size of their unit and where they are, they are connected right now with a handheld PRC-161 radio,” he clarifies. “On the front line, [they] could be using that radio to pass data, targeting data, from what they see, what their sensor sees or anyone else nearby sees. But if they wanted to get data from something else, such as an ISR [intelligence surveillance reconnaissance] asset that is in space or from an airborne ISR system, but those are outside of that initial couple hundred nautical miles, it is still picking up data from SIGINT [signals intelligence] or any other kind of sensing system. Right now today that data would be completely opaque to your son or daughter on the front lines. There is no way that those data could be passed from what they see to the weapon on the front line. In addition to that, the actual data that is coming to the front line, those [warfighters] have real-world information about what is going on. It is difficult for them to be able to pass that data from the front line back to the targeting cells and back to command and control headquarters. That is a very difficult command chain that takes multiple hops to get there. What the transfer layer would do is essentially open all of those lanes of communication.”

Tranche 1 will tie the warfighters’ PRC 161 radios into any other warfighter or targeting cell that they need globally. “You can then use that data to target from any system that is available,” he states. “That is what will allow the speed of that information flow.”

Moreover, the effort will provide the United States an asymmetrical advantage, Tournear continues. “Other nation-states are developing proliferated constellations to be able to do a lot of this low-latency type of ISR kind of connectivity, but as far as the ability to tie in directly to tactical data links and form that whole mesh network across the globe for existing tactical data systems—no one else is doing that,” he emphasizes. “And primarily, no one else is doing that because the U.S. has built up over the last 30 years the infrastructure of these existing radios. So, all of that already exists, and what we are doing is we are tying all that together to give the low-latency global connectivity, which doesn’t exist.”  

In addition, the SDA architecture will provide a global optical laser capability. “These lasercom [communication] terminals not only form the mesh network of what we’re building out, but they also provide low-latency, high-bandwidth communication to users that have optical terminals on the air, on the ground and at sea,” Tournear noted. “That also gives a way that we can have high data rates to our warfighters.”

The National Defense Space Architecture also will offer additional data transport capability to targeting cells. “We’ll be able to take data from anywhere around the globe and pass that data directly down to targeting systems,” Tournear explains. “That data can be used to calculate a fire control solution, which we could then send directly to a weapons platform over those tactical data links.”

Ultimately, the National Defense Space Architecture will provide the uniting structure of the Defense Department’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control, or JADC2, network.
“From the department’s perspective, the transport layer is the JADC2 backbone,” he states. “That means we are responsible for tying the services together. Each individual service has their own JADC2 instantiation on how they tie their own sensors and their own shooters together, but then with SDA flying the transport layer, that is what allows each of the services to be able to communicate globally with one another in this low-latency tactical time frame, so that they can pass sensor and targeting data amongst each other, and we can tie into all the JADC2 instantiations.”

The SDA expects the Tranche 1 Transport layers to be available after the first satellite launches planned for the fall of 2024.

In the meantime, the agency will continue to develop important warfighter connectivity and missile warning capabilities as part of the Space Force—the SDA is set to fully join the Space Force by October 1, 2022. As such, the service requested $987 million as part of the fiscal year 2023 budget request for SDA missile warning and tracking advancements under the service’s Space Technology Development and Prototyping Office. The Space Force also requested another $461 million for SDA Space Science and Technology research and development for the data transport layer of the NDSA.

When finished, the National Defense Space Architecture will provide warfighters global, persistent indications, warning, tracking and identification of conventional and advanced missile threats, including future warning of hypersonic missile systems, in addition to the important communications links, Tournear says.

“The first launches will occur in September of 2024, and with this initial warfighting capability, we will actually be able to effectively fight with these capabilities,” he notes.

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