“Inspired by the great prospects opening up before mankind as a result of man’s entry into outer space… recognising the common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space
for peaceful purposes…”

"I think it is important and fair to say that, although satcom is a critical cornerstone capability for joint or combined warfighting, we recognise our number-one priority is to ensure that the US warfighter is equipped with the required capability solutions first. " 

So begins the famed 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which goes on to outline, in clear terms, that states party to the accord “undertake not to place in orbit around the earth any object carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction.”

Almost 40 years later, the pact endures, and in 2014, Russia and China ostensibly attempted to strengthen its intentions with a new draft of a treaty first proposed in 2008: the Prevention of Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT).

What PPWT conspicuously does not incorporate, however, is a ban on the use of co-orbital or direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) systems that could be used to deliberately damage or interfere with the satellites of other states. It’s an omission with special significance in light of suspected activity by both nations to test ASAT technology.

In July 2014, the US accused China of conducting the non-destructive test of a missile designed to destroy satellites, and pointed to an earlier destructive ASAT test carried out by the Chinese in 2007 that caused a cloud of debris to be released. Russia’s own manoeuvres with its Luch satellite, and the mysterious ‘Object 2014-28E’, have also triggered suspicion.

In the remote blackness of space, some claims are as difficult to verify as they are to deny. What’s clear, however, is that modern military capabilities rely upon access to satcom and that orbiting apparatus will therefore need to be resilient to potential attack.

For the US military, satcom has played an increasingly crucial role in operations since Operation Desert Storm, its military action against Iraq 25 years ago, linking forces and capabilities worldwide. Satcom allows information to be shared up and down the chain of command rapidly and with little infrastructure, enabling expeditionary operations and ‘reach-back’ support. Today, protecting such capabilities is a matter of urgency.

“Like any system, satcom has vulnerabilities that must be defended from attacks by would-be adversaries,” Technical Sergeant Michael Slater, a spokesman for US Air Force Space Command (AFSC) says. “Moreover, certain governments continue to develop and proliferate counter-space capabilities, including technologies aimed at interfering with communications satellites.

“We can expect to see these technologies used by non-state actors in the future, which is why it is imperative now that we posture ourselves to counter the threat, no matter the source.”

In a new environment

In this novel paradigm, physically protecting satcom equipment in space is as important as protecting its transmissions from a cybersecurity perspective.

“Space is no longer a benign environment – it must be viewed as contested, degraded and operationally limited,” Slater says. “This transformation in the way we view the space domain will help inform our strategic choices as we move forward with the fielding of the most relevant operational capability.”

Slater’s comments come as a new initiative, the Space Enterprise Vision (SEV), is rolled out following an August 2015 study of the same name that addressed the findings of previous reports showing the US space enterprise to be insufficiently resilient for success in a conflict extending to space.

Speaking at the time of the programme’s announcement in April this year, the commander of AFSC, General John Hyten, highlighted the “unchallenged freedom of action in the space domain” that the US had enjoyed in the recent past. For this reason, US military space systems had previously been designed for long-term functionality and efficiency, rather than with threats in mind.

SEV therefore provides a model for how AFSC should prepare itself to respond to the new environment – through an integrated approach across all space mission areas. It recognises that a stovepipe approach to spending on a mission-by-mission basis is no longer appropriate, and that acquisition and programme decisions must be driven by an “overarching mission enterprise context”.

Slater explains the methodology: “To guide the development of this future enterprise, the SEV proposes using a new optimising concept called ‘resilience capacity’ to characterise and evaluate space capabilities. Resilience capacity will measure how well space enterprise forces can respond to the full range of known threats, and how quickly they can adapt to counter future threats, while continuing to deliver space effects to joint and coalition warfighters.

It will replace the ‘functional availability’ metric used for decades to plan and manage individual constellations, but that does not account for emerging threats.”

Ready for the task

According to Colonel Michael O Kinslow, AFSC is taking a number of approaches towards achieving this sought-after resilience. As chief of the SATCOM and PNT (positioning, navigation and timing) division at AFSC, Kinslow directs a 70-person team guiding the execution of a $36.4-billion annual budget, and oversees all activities to provide forces for USSTRATCOM’s global milsatcom mission and USSTRATCOM’s global, space-based 24/7/365 PNT mission.

From AFSC headquarters at the Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, he outlines some of the steps being taken. “We ensure the spacecraft, or constellation, is physically more resilient to adversary threats, such as increased numbers of satellites or enhanced manoeuvrability, as well as ensuring or protecting the satcom signals themselves,” he says.

“For example, one area we are focusing on is the protection of tactical satcom [non-nuclear or non-survivable] via a new approach: the protected tactical waveform [PTW].

“PTW will enable protected tactical satcom support for forward-deployed users and coalition/international partners. It is frequency agnostic and can be used on any transponded [X/Ka-band] wideband satcom platform or a processed [extremely high-frequency] payload that supports PTW, providing critical communication with varying levels of protection depending on the user requirement, satellite system and available resources.”

Kinslow’s reference here to coalition partners is, of course, significant. In the modern theatre of combat, being able
to collaborate with allied forces is vital, and so communications solutions must be compatible with coalition technology as and when required.

International partnership agreements are key to realising this compatibility and furthering the development of the technology. Kinslow draws attention to the Advanced Extremely High-Frequency (AEHF) system, which provides protected communications for ground, sea and air strategic command and tactical warfighters. Through IP agreements with the UK, the Netherlands and Canada, AEHF also serves these nations. Meanwhile, IP agreements for the Wideband Global Satcom system include Australia, Canada, Denmark and New Zealand.

"Space is no longer a benign environment – it must be viewed as contested, degraded and operationally limited. This transformation in the way we view the space domain will help inform our strategic choices as we move forward with the fielding of the most relevant operational capability. " 

“These partnerships ensure consistent technology linkages for current satcom programmes of record,” Kinslow says. “Additionally, as we examine materiel solutions for identified capability gaps during the various satcom solution studies, we explore all forms of technology to satisfy the needs, whether US or foreign.”

At the same time as supporting its allies, the US military remains focused on its own capabilities as it seeks to create a system of guaranteed communication for its soldiers.“I think it is important and fair to say that, although satcom is a critical cornerstone capability for joint or combined warfighting, we recognise our number-one priority is to ensure that the US warfighter is equipped with the required capability solutions first,” Kinslow says.

“Having said that, I would stress that we continually look for opportunities to increase the use of allied and non-DoD government satcom systems.

“NATO or international partnerships are considered in each of our satcom analyses and studies to ensure combined coalition operations. However, there are some capabilities we are working on that will remain US-only capabilities, such as the Presidential National Voice Conferencing [PNVC] programme effort. That is needed to ensure assured communication to the warfighter, no matter the environment.”

Space agency

PNVC is part of STRATCOM’s drive to provide survivable communications for presidential support, and nuclear command and control – allowing national and military leaders to stay connected with the situation as it unfolds, with each other and with the joint-force commander.

As AFSC prepares for the next generation of satcom technology, maintaining a view of the current and potential future requirements of the warfighter is key. This means seeking low-risk, mature technology options to address near-term capability gaps while awaiting the results of ongoing analyses to determine longer-term solutions, according to Kinslow.

“Not only are we examining the effective way to enable future concepts to seamlessly transition between the different satcom operating environments – benign, contested and nuclear – we are pursuing modernisation improvements to current programmes of record to increase connectivity given expected demand increases and/or improve the signal protection in future space enterprise architectures,” he says.

“One of our focus areas is the deployment of constellations of smaller satellites and/or payloads to supply diverse communications paths, reducing the impact on warfighters of the loss of any single satellite due to being disabled by non-kinetic means – jamming, for example – or being destroyed by an adversary. This form of disaggregation would increase the resiliency of our satcom capabilities.”

The logic in reducing dependency on any one satellite or constellation is evident as uncertainty lingers over the test activities of state actors in the space domain and what the legality of these may be in future. As the technology advances, time will tell whether the ‘peaceful purposes’ of 1967 must instead evolve into active peacekeeping.