News Feature | January 11, 2022

U.S. Military Future Hinges On Space Force SATCOM Strategy and Balance

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By Abby Proch, Editor

On-Orbit Satellite RF Measurements

Ask any preeminent expert the key to U.S. military dominance — even subsistence — and they’ll likely point upwards.

Yes, space.

Just four months ago, Space Force Gen. John W. "Jay" Raymond announced plans to transition the Army’s and Navy’s satellite communications housing, funding, and missions — to include 15 global units and 259 civilian billets — to the Space Force. The original “move-in” date was set for Oct. 1, 2021, but a perpetually delayed budget proposal has put that transition in limbo.  

Setting aside the issue of a funding for just a moment, the decision to lump SATCOM under one military body is an effort to unify the country’s military space presence, which has become increasingly important as adversarial powers also seek a greater presence in space. Space Force Lt. Gen. B. Chance Saltzman has said the “space domain has rapidly become far more congested, and far more contested than … when [he] was a lieutenant or a captain operating space capabilities.”

Full acquisition of SATCOM by Space Force is one way in which the military hopes to support Joint All Domain Command and Control (JDAC2), an all-encompassing warfighting effort meant to serve as a “network-of-networks” that enables a complete awareness and swift action/reaction on the battlefront. The reality is the future of military dominance depends on it.

But to get there, officials with Space Force’s Space Warfighting Analysis Center (SWAC) must first land on an acquisition strategy. What is known is that Space Force will employ a mix of satellite types – large, complex, and costly down to smaller sats with niche applications, operating across LEO, MEO, and GEO (Low, Middle and Geosynchronous Earth Orbit, respectively). However, there are many uncertainties, such as whether to rely on radio frequency or optical satellite communications and if/when user terminals need replacing or updated. Tack onto that budget uncertainty, and the effort has David Voss, director of the Spectrum Warfare Center of Excellence at SWAC, and team rushing to find solutions. When asked by Breaking Defense when SWAC could detail those needs and formulate an acquisition program, Voss replied, “Not fast enough from what we’ve been told.”

Back to the question of funding, the planned acquisition of SATCOM services by the Department of Defense — to be solicited in March and awarded in August — could top $875 million for indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (ID/IQ) contracts. Couple that with a slowly shifting mindset when it comes to balancing custom and commercial satellites, industry could be in for a treat. The DoD has often opted for non-commercial satellites, but reports say that Space Force is reconsidering its buying strategy, especially regarding LEO and MEO options.