In a $3 billion bet, Space Force envisions tactical anti-jam SATCOM keeping enemy EW at bay

WASHINGTON — The Space Force is planning to spend slightly more than $3 billion between fiscal 2024 and 2028 for its multi-pronged effort to develop new jam-resistant satellite communications (SATCOM) systems to ensure warfighters on the battlefield can stay securely connected in the face of ever-improving adversary electronic warfare systems.

The funds, as shown in the service’s newly published budget justification documents (called j-books), would support the disparate pieces of Space Systems Command’s complex Protected Anti-Jam Tactical SATCOM (PATS) family of systems. PATS was initiated in 2018 to take over the tactical mission of the current Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites, which provide highly encrypted communications for both strategic and tactical needs.

The goal is to provide a resilient SATCOM architecture by using multiple types of satellites with better encryption that are dispersed over various orbits to flummox adversary jamming attempts — with US national security planners fully expecting sophisticated electronic warfare attacks against satellites in future conflicts.

But another reason for the PATS program is that commanders in the field long have complained that the legacy system and other military SATCOM networks cannot provide enough bandwidth for their operational needs, with the Army in particular feeling so under-served that it has been considering buying its own satellites.

PATS thus will involve hosted payloads on commercial and US military satellites, “free-flying” commercial satellites carrying on-board encrypted signal processing systems, and a future Space Systems Command owned-and-operated satellite constellation, all in at least two different orbital regimes. Such a diverse effort could be wider still with the addition of “international partnerships,” as suggested in the service’s j-book detailing research and development efforts, although an SSC spokesperson told Breaking Defense in an email that currently there are no signed agreements.

As it develops over time, PATS will include software and hardware for both ground- and space-based systems that use an encrypted signal developed by the Defense Department, called the Protected Tactical Waveform (PTW), to stave off enemy jamming.

The two main PATS program lines are split into space-based and land-based efforts. The Protected Tactical Satellite Communications (PTS) effort is currently concentrating on development of payload prototypes that will process PTW on-board future satellites; and the Protected Tactical Enterprise Service (PTES) ground segment that will integrate with PTW-enabled modems and user terminals acquired by the Navy, Army and Air Force.

PTS: First Commercial Prototypes, Then A New Constellation

“PTS implements military grade cyber protection and controls to defend against attacks,” the SSC spokesperson explained, emphasizing that the ability for each satellite to function more autonomously will improve resilience of the constellation.

“The ability to operate without ground allows PTS to degrade gracefully when under attack to preserve critical comms and reconstitute to full functionality in a tactically relevant timeline. These PTS resilience features enable SATCOM in close proximity to adversaries in a contested, degraded, and operationally limited environment,” the spokesperson said.

The Space Force is asking for $360 million in FY24 for PTS, about $100 million more than its FY23 request. In total, the j-book shows, the service wants slightly more than $2.4 billion from FY24 through FY28.

According to the j-book, PTS will sport “on-board payload/signal processing, antenna design, and advanced beam-forming” and use a “distributed, diversified, and agile constellation of hostable payloads and high capacity free-flyers.”

The FY24 funds are primarily aimed at the PTS program’s first phase to develop two prototype payloads, one made by Boeing and one by Northrop Grumman under contract awards in 2020 worth $191 million and $253 million, respectively.

“The Boeing prototype payload will be hosted on WGS-11. The Northrop Grumman prototype will be hosted on a Northrop Grumman ESPAStar-HP satellite,” the SCC spokesperson said.

The WGS-11 satellite is part of the Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) constellation based in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) for military SATCOM, produced by Boeing. WGS is used by all Combatant Commands and nine partner countries: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, Belgium, Netherlands, New Zealand, the Czech Republic and Norway. The Pentagon had planned to stop buying the satellites after number 10, but in 2018 Congress added some $600 million for WGS-11 — and in the FY23 budget threw in another $442 million for yet another one, WGS-12.

Northrop Grumman’s ESPAStar-HP is an upgraded variant of the company’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adaptor platforms, optimized for use in the GEO belt and capable of carrying bigger payloads, according to a company fact sheet [PDF]. That will be a “free flyer” satellite, according to the j-book, that is, dedicated to the PTS prototype demonstration.

Both of those prototypes are to be delivered in calendar year 2024, according to the SSC spokesperson, with launch expected in 2025.

Meanwhile, SSC has already started market survey to suss out what vendors might bring to a future program for the command to buy its own dedicated PTS satellites, rather than simply rely on commercial operators. The Space Force issued a request for information in January, asking for industry response by Feb. 20.

“The prototypes will provide performance data regarding the implementation of Protected Tactical Waveform and active beam forming, while also allowing the Protected Tactical Waveform terminal operators training and experience with this new capability. Future PTS satellites will scale up from the prototype payloads to provide increased levels of performance,” the SSC spokesperson explained.

These PTS satellites will be “purpose built to operate in the Ka-band’ of the electromagnetic spectrum, the spokesperson explained. “The PTS satellites include the on-board crypto unit provided by SSC, along with hardware and software developed by industry, to enable communication with specially enabled ground terminals” using the PTW.

SSC is studying three options for how PTS satellites should be developed and procured:

SSC developed via contractor(s) with initial operational capability (IOC) in 2030;
SSC developed via contractor(s) with “minimum viable” capability in 2027, then further development to reach IOC at a later date;
commercial turnkey system equipped with a PTS payload (determined by the vendor) with IOC in 2030.
“This market research will help inform our acquisition strategy which includes a timeline for release of [a formal request for proposals] later this calendar year,” the SSC spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, Back On Earth: PTES

Secure comms in orbit won’t do a lot of good if there’s no one on the ground that can also securely receive them. Enter the Protected Tactical Enterprise Service (PTES).

“PTES is a software intensive program needed to achieve the PATS architecture by developing the critical ground infrastructure to operationalize the PTW via military and commercial satellite systems for tactical users in all Services,” the Space Force RTD&E j-book explains.

Initiated in 2018, the program is using Section 804 contracting authorities for rapid prototyping — focused primarily on speeding equipment to Indo-Pacific Command, which is keeping a wary eye on Chinese efforts to develop counterspace capabilities meant to thwart US operations in the region.

Boeing is the prime contract for PTES, having been awarded a contract worth $383 million in 2018. The company on March 6 announced that it had completed a key demonstration of the technology using an operational satellite.

For FY24, the Space Force is asking $76.5 million for PTES, and a total of $535 million over the five-year budget planning cycle.

PTES is developing the basic satellite constellation management system software that satellite ground controllers will need to use the PTW.  Initially, the PTES will enable the signal to be used over the Wideband Global Satcom satellites, and then later be extended “to provide PTW service using commercial satellites in various orbits and purpose-built PTS system with onboard PTW processing,” the document elaborates.

Indeed, for the first time in the FY24 budget request, the Space Force has divvied up the budget for the PTES ground segment for WGS and that for commercial systems, now called PTW Over Commercial, into separate projects (both underneath the same budgetary program element basket, PE 1206760SF.)

“New Project 643733 was created starting in FY 2024 for Protected Tactical Waveform (PTW) Over Commercial to develop an anti-jam (AJ) communications capability via PTW Over Commercial constellations for tactical users in all Services and International Partners (IP),” the j-book explains.

The updated ground segment for WGS is aimed squarely at the needs of forces in the Pacific theater, with IOC expected in FY24 using two downlink stations one satellite, the j-book explains. Full operational capability is planned for FY26, when PTES will “provide worldwide PTW operations using up to all WGS satellites.”

For the PTW Over Commercial, the Space Force is planning IOC in calendar year 2026, and full operational capability in 2028.

Modems And User Terminals: Service Responsibility

The PTES program is not funding the procurement or integration of service-specific modems and user terminals required for tanks, ships, aircraft and weapon systems to use the encrypted PTW signal. But the Space Force has contributed to the development of new low-cost modems modified to use the signal, under the Protected Tactical Service Field Demonstration (PTSFD) initiated way back in 2016.

“Production-representative PTW modems for user terminals were developed by the Protected Tactical Service Field Demonstration (PTSFD) and separately acquired by each Service and by [industry partners]. The Navy Wideband Anti-Jam Modem System (WAMS), the Air Force-Army Anti-Jam Modem (A3M), and other stakeholders rely on PTES to provide PTW ground infrastructure,” the Space Force j-book explains.

“The user terminal segment, not included in this acquisition, utilizing low-cost PTW modem upgrades enabled by the A3M and WAMS programs are designed to become an integral part of the growing PATS enterprise,” the document adds.