The urgent quest for a sovereign SATCOM capability
As bushfires raged along eastern Australia just over a year ago, destroying lives, property, and livelihoods, the ADF deployed to help out – with a little bit of help from the US military.
For communications, the ADF relied on a range of resources, including the US military’s Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) network. WGS is Australia’s go-to SATCOM system, an exquisite capability delivered by a constellation of 10 satellites in geostationary orbit, providing very high-speed broadband for the US and its allies.
Not anyone can access WGS and Australia paid its dues by funding satellite WGS-6 which gives us proportional access to the network. Other international partners are Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, and New Zealand which contributed to the cost of WGS-9.
The first WGS satellite was launched in 2007, with capability steadily improved to the point where WGS-10 can deliver download speeds of up to 11 gigabits per second.
For Operation Bushfire Assist, the ADF formed three Joint Task Forces – JTF 646, 1110, and 1111 – across three different regions, mobilising several thousand full-time and reserve personnel to provide land, sea, and air support. To coordinate operations, the ADF sought access to WGS which the US military provided.
That was facilitated by the US Regional Satellite Communications Support Center-Pacific (RSSC-PAC) at Wheeler Army Airfield in Hawaii which is responsible for planning WGS missions in the Pacific region.
“We received SATCOM requests from both the Australian and New Zealand Defence forces supporting missions in Australia aiding in bushfire response efforts,” Robert Driskell, Wideband Cell chief at RSSC-PAC told US Army media in a January 2020 briefing.
“Once we received these requests for support, we were able to allocate resources over the WGS constellation in less than 24 hours, ensuring rapid response for units on the ground,” he said. “To date, we have planned 10 missions for both Australian and New Zealand Defence forces providing direct support to this effort.”
That’s terrific – an ally helping out in time of need. But it highlights just why Australia is intent on developing a very expensive SATCOM capability all our own.
The fundamental issue is that WGS isn’t ours to use as needed. In order to access WGS, we need to ask and, in this case, access was facilitated within 24 hours. But what if we needed urgent access to SATCOM sooner? What if the US had its own crisis which required maximum access to its SATCOM capabilities? Any potential adversary appreciates that WGS is a vital strategic capability and, early in a conflict, access could be congested, degraded, or wholly denied.
But even if WGS were denied, Australia wouldn’t be wholly without SATCOM. Australia owns a communications payload aboard the Optus C-1 satellite which was launched in 2003. With a projected lifespan of around 15 years, C1 is pretty much running on empty, although with an adjustment to orbit it will remain operational to around 2027.
In 2009, the ADF also signed a 15-year deal for access to 20 channels on a UHF communications payload on commercial satellite Intelsat IS-22 which was launched in 2012, and which provides coverage of the Indian Ocean region.
The ADF has extensive fixed and mobile ground SATCOM infrastructure, delivered through the long-running multi-phase Joint Project 2008. Then there’s the legacy HF (high frequency) network, a sovereign capability steadily modernised and wholly satellite-independent.
Defence’s SATCOM vision has evolved. Where once it viewed space capabilities as an adjunct to land, sea, and air operations, it now views space as a vital operational domain in its own right, requiring its own substantial investment.
The ADF requires a lot of data capacity now. As was demonstrated in the Middle East, actual operations create an insatiable demand for data, and new ISR capabilities such as the MQ-4C Triton, MQ-9B SkyGuardian, and MC-55A Peregrine will generate even larger quantities.
“The combination of an increasing reliance on space capabilities with the capacity limitations of Australia’s legacy systems must be addressed,” the 2020 Force Structure Plan states. Therefore, the government has committed around $7 billion towards space capabilities over the next decade. Under Joint Project JP 9102, up to $3 billion will be spent to enhance SATCOM out to 2029, creating the Australian Defence SATCOM System (ADSS).
“The vision is for a sovereign-owned and controlled SATCOM system, consisting of our own satellites for long-range communications capability that is more resilient, flexible and agile,” Director-General of Air Defence and Space, AIRCDRE Phil Gordon told ADBR.
“Defence has invested a significant amount of time and effort into building our ground infrastructure into the current SATCOM capability,” he added. “Defence will seek to leverage that investment by modifying and enhancing it, in line with moving to develop a sovereign capability.”
That doesn’t mean Australia will go it wholly alone. AIRCDRE Gordon said Defence will continue to cooperate with international partners and share some of what we have in exchange for access to their capabilities for global reach. He also said Defence will continue to use commercial SATCOM contracts to supplement and augment capability where required.
The ADF has steadily refined its capability requirements, but the final JP 9102 Request for Tender, which will spell out precisely what it requires, hasn’t been released.
Though Defence hasn’t specified in fine detail what it wants, some broad details have been released. It requires primary coverage area over the Australian mainland, and secondary coverage well out into the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
Capability will be delivered in two streams which may require different satellites. The first stream is a high mobility narrowband SATCOM for tactical communications for deployed forces down to an individual soldier with a backpack satellite radio. The other is a high capacity wideband for fixed locations and platforms requiring very high data throughput, including naval vessels, Triton, Poseidon, Wedgetail, and other aircraft.
In practice that may require large satellites in fixed geostationary orbit, for which a typical lifespan is around 15 years based on onboard fuel requirements for attitude and orbital adjustment. But technology for extending the life of valuable satellites is emerging, and will have advanced significantly by the time Australia’s birds are in orbit.
So how many satellites? The answer seems to be four – two each delivering wideband and narrowband capabilities east and west, providing full coverage of the Pacific, mainland, and Indian Ocean regions.
Different contenders may pitch different numbers and may also make use of some commercial capabilities, depending on how they believe Defence requirements could be best delivered. The key criteria will be sovereignty.
A number of companies have expressed an interest in pitching for JP 9102.
Boeing says its status as the incumbent on the WGS program and provider of key elements of existing UHF satellites means it can offer a low-risk next generation capability that is ‘out-of-the-box’ interoperable with the US and other five-eyes nations.
The ADF is obviously familiar with WGS capabilities, and Boeing is proposing a version of WGS-11 for what it calls the Australian Military Wideband Satellite (AWBS) for wideband, plus a satellite based on its the new 702X bus for narrowband.
WGS was developed to replace the legacy 14-satellite US Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS) constellation, launched from 1982 to 2003. So far there are 10 WGS satellites – launched from 2007 to 2019 – with the US military boasting in 2007 that the new WGS satellite would deliver 10 times the bandwidth of the entire DSCS constellation.
Throughout the WGS program, satellite capabilities have steadily improved. The US military considered no more were needed after 10. Despite this, the US Congress inserted US$605m (A$780m) in funding for WGS-11 and WGS-12 into the Pentagon’s budget in 2018.
The contract with Boeing for WGS-11 announced in April 2019, with launch expected around 2024, and WGS-11 is expected to deliver about double the capacity of WGS-10.
Boeing’s director of tactical military SATCOM, Rico Attanasio briefed in 2020 that Boeing had manufactured WGS for 20 years and has continued to evolve and advance the system while reducing unit cost. “WGS-10 may look like WGS-1, but its capability is much greater,” he said. “WGS-11 is a step function in increase in capability over WGS-10 while maintaining full interoperability with the users.
“All existing user terminals are compatible with WGS-11,” he added. “We are soon going to be fielding a WGS ground system upgrade to provide fleet-wide geolocation and adaptive knowing of satellite jammers, with added protection for the entire fleet.”
Boeing Defence Australia JP9102 program manager Kathryn Burr said a truly networked force, which the ADF aspires to be, required access to fast reliable data. “They are looking for turnaround times in terms of access requests in the order of minutes to days rather than the current scenario which is really around weeks to months it takes to access some of the current SATCOM arrangements,” she said.
“The operational environment is challenging and will continue to evolve through the life of the program,” she added. “Therefore the resilience aspects of the 9102 architecture must be able to account for the threats that exist today. It also has to be able to be upgraded and to evolve constantly to meet the evolving threat environment.
“Thirdly, and potentially the most important aspect, is around self-reliance. The ADF wants to have complete control of, and assured access to, their beyond visual line of sight communications capabilities within their area of interest.”
Boeing says 702X is the newest addition to its satellite family, featuring a flexible software-defined digital processor with ability to digitally form, steer and shape over 5,000 beams in real time. Should Boeing win JP 9102, its satellites would be manufactured at its facility at El Segundo, California.
But Burr says the ground and control segments would offer the greatest opportunities for Australian industry. To that end, Boeing has signed a collaborative agreement with Sydney firm Clearbox Systems to use its expertise in SATCOM software development and integration.
Lockheed Martin also has vast space expertise which, it says, makes it well-placed to meet Australian requirements. The company isn’t yet specifying what satellites it would offer, but points to its diverse and prolific A/LM2100 family of busses which are used as military, commercial broadcasting, and communications satellites.
In US military service, the A/LM2100 is used for GPS satellites, the US Navy’s Mobile User Objective System narrowband communication satellites, and the US Space Force’s six Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) communications satellites.
David Ball, regional director for Australian and New Zealand for Lockheed Martin Space, told ADBR that the company had built very advanced communications satellites for the US and other governments. “We have a very good grasp of the future and forward-looking requirements of the defence force for interoperability with our allies with our own organics capabilities.”
Ball said that for JP 9102 Lockheed Martin would leverage what it had done in other parts of the world and for the US government. “You have to take a holistic view of the project – it’s not just the satellite,” he said. “The satellites are but one part. It’s an integrated system. You have to look at the embedded terminals on existing platforms in land, sea, and air environments.
“It is critical that you understand the constraints and limitations of those terminals and the future ambition of the platform on which those terminals are fitted. You also have to look at the anchoring capability and the control segment. All those three elements will be upgraded under this program.”
Rod Drury, Lockheed Martin Space International Vice-President, said Lockheed had a well established reputation for delivering all classes and types of satellites. That comes from small and large satellites conducting earth observation, small satellites performing secure and unsecure communications, and satellites covering the complete range of exploratory activities in civil space.
“Whilst we will be relying and drawing on that expertise, we will obviously include the elements that are appropriate and combined that with some innovation to provide the solution for Australia,” he told ADBR, adding that capabilities and capacity to overcome rapidly evolving counter-space capabilities were needed.
“That is why we are looking to bring a mixture of our heritage, innovation and forward thinking to a solution for Australia that not only meets the expectation and needs of today but is well placed and agile and capable enough to be able to meet – at least those we know of and that we can predict – of the future.”
Airbus in Australia is proposing its Skynet satellites – which are used by the UK and others – to deliver ADF narrowband and, pending the release of the RFT, is considering different satellite and constellation options for wideband.
In Australia, Airbus has an MOU with the Australian Space Agency and is a founding core member of the SmartSat Cooperative Research Centre. Airbus Australia Pacific JP 9102 campaign lead, Martin Rowse, said Airbus was one of the world leaders in satellite communications, but he acknowledged that, for JP 9102, they were up against the big players.
“We are absolutely in the right league to be up against them,” he told ADBR. “We are the world leader in communications satellites. We recently sold another satellite to Optus, and we are hoping to continue that relationship. We also bring wide experience of providing military satellite capabilities globally.
“There is always a misconception that Airbus is a European company,” he added. “We are proudly European, but we also operate globally. Our ability brings military satellite capability in multiple different forms to meet the customer requirements.”
Rowse said Airbus had provided sovereign military satellite communications solutions to the UK, France, Germany, Spain, and the UAE, among others. “What we do is take a deliberately tailored approach to the customer requirements,” he said. “The current situation doesn’t necessarily allow Australia to have full control.
“What we are looking (at) is how to give Australian that full sovereign control,” he added. “Skynet 5 is a good example – operated by a UK military team and Airbus employees. The military team makes the decision on operational requirements, and then the Airbus team executes that decision.”
The Skynet satellites deliver communications to the UK armed forces, with the first launched in 1969. The first two series – each comprising two satellites – didn’t work very well and, rather than a third series, the UK opted to use US satellites instead.
That was an effective arrangement until the 1982 Falklands War when Britain realised it needed greater sovereignty for its satellite communications. Current UK military SATCOM is delivered by the Skynet 5 series of four satellites, launched from 2007 to 2012. They will be superseded by the Skynet 6 series, with the first – Skynet 6A – planned for launch in 2025.
Rowse said Australia moving to a sovereign solution offered huge benefits. “Within the Indo-Pacific region it’s clear there are challenges in the region. There are challenges as countries start to develop and start to grow, and some kind of unequal growth is always going to create a friction within the region.
“That’s where Australia taking that step to sovereign control is really beneficial,” he said. “True sovereignty is acting without boundaries, without constraints. Australia wants to take a regional role, they want to develop that role, continue to work with allies in the Indo-Pacific region and also with the US, UK, and Five Eyes.
But “they don’t want to ask permission. They want to make the decision and they want to see that operational requirement come into play within minutes to meet that requirement.”
For JP 9102, Airbus has formed Team Maier, partnering with Australian space and technology companies and academia to provide a complete Defence satellite communications system.
US satellite communications company ViaSat is also pitching an interesting proposal for JP 9102 – its hybrid adaptive networking (HAN) system which allows users such as the ADF to seamlessly switch between government and commercial networks, depending on which system offers the best capacity, economics and performance at the time.
The company says the traditional solution to achieve desired sovereignty was for governments to build their own satellite networks, which takes years and involves great investment. But by the time it’s operational, technology has moved on.
“To the Australian government, HAN would be a particularly attractive option,” a company spokesman told us. “ViaSat, for example offers global Ka- and Ku-band satellite service that is constantly being improved and refreshed.
“Being able to access that ViaSat capability would be invaluable to ADF users – whether aircraft, ships or ground troops wherever they are, including expeditionary and peacekeeping operations in remote areas.”
Rather than just employing a small number of large satellites in geostationary orbit, ViaSat says HAN uses all available networks. That includes commercial and defence broadband and narrowband SATCOM, line-of-sight networking, and tactical data links, integrating seamlessly with Link 16 and the numerous platforms with that capability.
“By achieving connectivity at the network layer, HAN is also able to embrace satellites in all orbits, GEO, MEO, and LEO, bringing together these disparate networks into a holistic enterprise architecture and facilitates interoperability between different platforms,” the company says.
“Most important, HAN would allow Australia to enjoy the best of both worlds. The government can retain sovereignty over important national security communications, yet still take advantage of the latest technological advances in the commercial SATCOM market.”
Defence has specified an open architecture system with a very high level of flexibility. “The ADF’s SATCOM capability needs to be able to reconfigure in response to both geopolitical and emerging operational circumstances, and to be able to develop and adapt to changing technology, threats and operational needs over the lifetime of the capability,” a 2018 industry briefing was told.
It also needs to be agile – responding to network requests in hours and days rather than weeks, and supporting in-mission changes in minutes and hours rather than days for highly-mobile users such as aircraft and special operations forces.
The new system also needs to be resilient in the face of existing and emerging threats. Defence notes a number of threat vectors, not all of which are equal.
These could range from small-scale short-duration data detection and monitoring, through to large-scale long-duration, including jamming, attack on terminals, seizure of satellite control, attack with energy weapons, and anti-satellite missiles.
Any adversary knows precisely where satellites are located in geostationary orbit, as we know the location of theirs. So the truly resilient capability of the future may feature constellations of small, networked satellites in low earth orbit (LEO) delivering communications, positioning, and observation services, able to be replaced or supplemented at short notice by Australian rockets and domestic launch services.
The RFT is expected to be released in March, followed by five months for response, assessment, and then an offer definition phase to clarify tenders. The Defence Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group (CASG) will then invite one, two or more tenders to make a firm proposal.