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Synchronicity Drives Transformational Communications

A rare launch window is giving the U.S. Defense Department a chance to plan its next generation of space-based communications systems around both innovation and interoperability. This launch window does not involve a single mission. Rather, it encompasses the entire family of military communications satellites now on the drawing board.


The Boeing Delta II lifts off carrying the National Reconnaissance Office's geosynchronous lightweight technology experiment satellite, known as GeoLITE. The research satellite carried a laser communications experiment and operational ultrahigh frequency communicataions, both of which may play significant roles in the space-based communications architecture under development by the NRO's new Transformational Communications Office.

New space technologies offer a quantum leap in capabilities—if they work together.

A rare launch window is giving the U.S. Defense Department a chance to plan its next generation of space-based communications systems around both innovation and interoperability. This launch window does not involve a single mission. Rather, it encompasses the entire family of military communications satellites now on the drawing board.

These satellites are being planned to replace many current orbiters that lack the necessary capabilities to optimize network-centric warfare. Various government elements—the Defense Department’s Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence (ASD C3I); the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA); NASA; and the intelligence community—are working on developing and using the future space-based assets.

With so many parties involved in this broad-based effort, the Defense Department has created the Transformational Communications Office to coordinate efforts among the diverse groups (SIGNAL, November 2002, page 6). This office is focusing on ensuring that the advantages that can be gleaned from the next generation of space communications systems are not limited or lost by interoperability conflicts.

The new office is building an architecture that will define space communications for the next couple of decades. This architecture will be designed to deliver a set of standards and protocols that ensures interoperability among new technologies.

“This is a remarkable opportunity in time to have this confluence of technology and programs that can be recapitalized,” contends Rear Adm. Rand H. Fisher, USN, director of the Transformational Communications Office. “The transformational communications architecture is about the network,” he declares. “It’s not about the satellites; it’s not about the terminals—it’s about the whole infrastructure.”

In addition to heading this new office, Adm. Fisher also serves as National Reconnaissance Office communications director. The deputy director of the Transformational Communications Office is Christine Anderson, who also is the director of the Military Satellite Communications Program Office at the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Center.

The real push for the creation of the Transformational Communications Office came from lessons learned in the past decade of Persian Gulf wars and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the admiral posits. In the Persian Gulf actions, the U.S. military discovered not only that it did not have enough communications capacity, but also that it did not connect well. After September 11, experts learned that the tremendous amount of available information—even beyond the Defense Department—requires connections among its various providers and users.

However, its timeliness is based on opportunity rather than just need. The admiral cites the tremendous explosion in information technology—especially optical communications—the Internet and Moore’s Law of processing speed growth. Combined with these are several programmatic opportunities arising from a confluence in replacement schedules.

“Virtually all of the elements of the current infrastructure—terminals, satellites and networks—have the opportunity to be recapitalized,” Adm. Fisher declares. “We are at a nodal point where we are in the process of buying new equipment. If we can do that according to an architecture, then we can synchronize this activity and deliver much more capability for the dollar.

“We have a number of technological opportunities and challenges in order to deliver the capability that we desire,” he warrants.

Ensuring interoperability is a greater goal than accelerating advanced technology insertion, Adm. Fisher declares. “The challenge for maintaining interoperability as we deliver this new capability is the bigger challenge.

“We are not going to move toward optical communications mechanisms [just] because it is a new technology,” he continues. “The technology has evolved to a point where we can consider using it to meet our operational needs. The lesson learned from 9/11 is that we have a lot of information that we need to connect,” he states.

The key to achieving this necessary interoperability may lie in finding the right interaction between the eclectic group of operators who determine how they will use these new capabilities and the engineers who help the users understand how to achieve their operational goals. These engineers develop the technical architecture comprising a set of standards and protocols. “Ultimately, interoperability is determined by a set of standards and protocols that you have to play within,” the admiral says. “But, in order to be relevant, you have to bring the users together with the developers to ensure that, once you deliver, this [system] actually will be useful.”

One goal of the new office is to have the military’s global communications infrastructure be “just as capable” as the evolving ground infrastructure, Adm. Fisher offers. He notes how optical fiber improved bandwidth capabilities over that of copper by several orders of magnitude, with the result being gigabits of data traveling over terrestrial fiber. This capacity can be increased by additional gigabits in some types of fibers merely by adding another beam color. “We would like to be able to extend that in air and space as well,” he says.

This leads to one of the office’s primary technological goals—space laser communications. Satellites would be able to exchange information using laser links, which would increase their bandwidth capabilities considerably. The office will examine other possibilities as well, including laser links with ground and mobile platforms. However, some hurdles remain. “Clearly, optical communications have their advantages in terms of tremendous bandwidth, but they have some disadvantages in terms of needing a reasonably clear path. So, I don’t foresee an arena where we are going to go to all optical. I think there is a mix of optical and RF [radio frequency] wireless that we will evolve to,” Adm. Fisher allows.

Industry already is working on a number of optical components that have both commercial and military uses, the admiral notes. In the radio frequency arena, the military will need assured all-weather communications. So, the military needs techniques that allow delivery of more information per unit of communication. Other needs involve concepts to protect the network, especially at different classification levels.

The next few months should see the development of a business case. This will encompass a plan for delivering the needed capability and its commensurate cost.

“My goal is to be able to build this architecture from the ground up,” the admiral explains. “For a communications architecture to be effective, it has to connect. The key, in terms of interoperability, is connecting it with the users. Even though we might not see a new satellite until 2010 or so, we can make some adjustments on the ground [before then] that would have a funneling effect.”

These adjustments might take the form of software programmable terminals that replace a greater number of legacy equivalents. The evolution of these terminals would be controlled by establishing protocols and standards. Having fewer diverse terminals, along with the ability to change information protocols without having to extract an embedded terminal out of a platform, would generate savings along with advancing the technology.

Right now, requirements are driving the recapitalization more than are new capabilities, the admiral offers. He views the challenge facing his organization in three terms: technical, programmatic and cultural.

This challenge goes beyond designing an architecture that produces state-of-the-art systems. “At the nuts and bolts level, when we go to deliver the capability, it must connect, and it must be interoperable,” the admiral warrants. For example, many terminal programs currently are scattered across the Defense Department and the intelligence community. Organizations use different radios and ground terminals because their satellites are constructed differently. Similarly, these diverse groups use different networks because they have dissimilar security protocols and processes. The new architecture must address these interoperability challenges without sacrificing existing capabilities.

“Ensuring interoperability when we want to enable capability before we get rid of the old is a tough transition challenge,” Adm. Fisher states.

The major programmatic challenge involves synchronizing the programs. “When you look at the complexity of the infrastructure, you quickly can become overwhelmed by the number of specific acquisition programs that compose that,” he says. “We are going to need different processes to deal with that.”

The office’s processes are much more geared to programs, the admiral explains. It has very structured laws and policies—as well as planning, programming and budgeting processes—that deal with programs. “Dealing with architectures is paving new ground,” he states.

The office also must work cross-culturally across lines separating several organizations. These include all the elements of the Defense Department, the intelligence community and NASA. Each of these cultures has its own set of policies and processes that have served it well. The task facing the Transformational Communications Office is to build an architecture and a set of processes and relationships that will allow those cultures to come together, Adm. Fisher explains. Ultimately, this new architecture will change the cultures of these organizations.

“At the foundation of an architecture is the capability that you want that architecture to deliver,” the admiral posits. “In this transformational architecture, we are shooting for a capstone capabilities document that will have to meet hard, firm requirements that users have and perceive.

“Yet, that alone will not be enough to make it transformational. We want to say, ‘Aside from that low-end of requirements, we want to be able to shoot for a higher end of capability.’ And, we have engaged industry full-bore with this,” he declares.

Three industry teams are working with the office independently to build architectures based on existing requirements documents. Unlike conventional procurements, their submissions will not be competed for a down-select or single winner. Instead, the best elements of each submission will be gleaned for collaborative examination, with government and academia to develop a government reference architecture. Adm. Fisher offers that the office may allow two architectures to proceed into the second stage of the process. Meanwhile, the same teams would work on plans for building systems, dividing requirements and choosing satellites. “We perceive that there will be different solution sets for that,” he says.

By the beginning of summer, the office hopes to have this government reference architecture vetted through a Defense Department joint requirements oversight committee (JROC), an intelligence community review board and a NASA approval process. This would ensure that the right architecture is put together by the groups that own the component elements.

Adm. Fisher declares that the new office views itself in a partnership with the other involved government groups rather than serving them or vice versa. All of the organizations involved with the office—ASD C3I, DISA, the intelligence community, NASA—retain their Title 10 or other acquisition responsibilities. The success of the office’s mission has more to do with the issue of governance. “There is high confidence that we will be able to come forward with an architecture. The issue will be, over the next five years, will we sustain the support across this broad coalition to deliver the architecture,” he observes.

As always, funding for this architecture will be a key determinant in its success. Adm. Fisher allows that, for the near term, costs will increase. During this period, new equipment and technologies will be introduced while the community simultaneously operates the existing infrastructure. However, he offers that, if the new architecture can be implemented “with some urgency and alacrity,” then it will save money—sooner rather than later. “The longer you have to maintain a transition, the more money you are going to spend during that period,” the admiral explains.

Even if that does not come to pass, the same amount of money that ordinarily would be spent over the next 10 to 20 years to extend the current system would, if applied to the new architecture, generate greatly improved capabilities. “We may increase capability tenfold,” the admiral suggests.

“It is not my intent to do any acquisition in the office,” Adm. Fisher maintains. “That isolates us from some of the organizational antibodies that would view that as a threat. I think that one of the reasons that we are getting a lot of support is that people recognize that what we are trying to do is provide a catalyst or a synchronizing function—we are not trying to own different elements.”

Ironically, the success of the Transformational Communications Office ultimately may be its undoing. If its efforts lead to interoperable state-of-the-art systems, then the need for the office may diminish. “It could go either way,” the admiral offers. “I’m not sure that my long-term vision is that the office would stay the way it is,” he says. “My hope is that, if we can demonstrate the effectiveness of building an architecture and then synchronizing acquisition through that, then think of the range of organizational alternatives that opens up.

“If you have an architecture that you are building to, one couldn’t care less who is building it or in what organization. It’s not clear to me as we migrate from the acquisition to the operate/maintain/manage part of this network, whether ultimately the role that our team is fulfilling stays as an entity or moves into another organization,” he points out.

Additionally, some of the work performed by the Transformational Communications Office could be integrated into that of the National Security Space Architect, which performs higher level studies and designs architectures. Similarly, the national security space construct also may evolve and assume a related role.

“If you ask me whether in 20 years there will be a Transformational Communications Office, I would say no. In fact, I would say ‘I hope not.’”