Military Information Technology – In satellite communications as well as virtually every other area, driving down costs is the order of day for the Department of Defense, whether that is reducing the initial capital investment, cutting usage costs or getting more output from current contracts and resources.
The complexity of the SATCOM supply chain—the space segment, earth stations, terminals and the way in which satellite bandwidth is acquired, leased and operated—offers both multiple challenges and opportunities in decreasing costs and increasing value for warfighters as well as back office functions.
In response, key players in the field are developing and emphasizing offerings designed to provide essential SATCOM capabilities in a cost-constrained environment. Last fall, for example, Tele- Communication Systems Inc., Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin unveiled a program called the Low Cost Terminal solution, which addresses the military’s need for lower-cost technologies and systems to enable protected and secure communications for tactical warfighters in theater.
Another important entry is GNOMAD, an on-the-move (OTM) SATCOM system from ITT Exelis that addresses the capabilities gaps for wide-band OTM communications in low-cost offerings, while ensuring that the ability to meet tight battlefield requirements has not been lost.
Rob Semple, manager, business development, explained the genesis of GNOMAD: “We talked to the users in the Army and Marine Corps and found out that what they wanted was something that was small and modular, allowing them to configure it for the mission, and that didn’t require extensive modification on the host platform, so it was easy to reinstall if the vehicles broke down. Finally, they wanted a low-profile antenna so the vehicles didn’t stick out as a commandand- control vehicle.”
To meet these needs, Semple explained, Exelis went out and found partners to supply and integrate standardized COTS equipment in a low-volume package. “One cost saving is from not having to do extensive integration work, so you are not changing the power requirements. That is a lot of engineering money saved. Nor do you have the high overhead cost of taking that commercial COTS equipment and ‘MILSPEC-ing’ it.
“We looked for best of breed and because of that, you can reach the size, weight and power levels that you previously saw only in bespoke systems,” he continued. “So we are not doing extensive integration to the vehicle platform. Therefore, if the vehicle goes down for automotive maintenance, you can go ahead and dismount the system and put it on another vehicle. That saves money.”
Hughes is another company that has been working with DoD and allied militaries to showcase the cost-saving capabilities of bandwidth-efficient technologies.
“Commercial companies are continually advancing their technologies to provide cutting-edge solutions at lower costs,” said Rick Lober, vice president and general manager of Hughes Defense and Intelligence Systems Division. “Our globally available SATCOM solutions employ extensive bandwidth-efficient technologies, resulting in greater capacity and throughput while reducing the need for more dedicated bandwidth, which reduces costs for our military partners in this austere budget environment.”
Nevertheless, there are certain things that can’t be repackaged due to security classification or environmental specifics. One example was the installation of GNOMAD on the M1 Abrams, where a lack of space within the vehicles meant that the modem had to be located outside the vehicles, which necessitated that the modem have MILSPEC protection. The encryption is the GFE KG-175, powered off the GNOMAD itself.
Some analysts have called for cost reductions through doing everything inhouse. But Semple argues against this, in part due to GNOMAD using standard OTM products for which the integration issues are well established.
“What we have with our partners is a great working relationship,” he said. “If we have an idea for something that the customer wants, then I go back to my teaming partners for a new module. They can go ahead and turn it around in 30-60 days and have the module ready to go.”
An example of this has been the addition of a new antenna to support operation of the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) satellite.
A key element of the approach is the absence of an exclusivity agreement for the GNOMAD components, Semple explained. “I talk to our suppliers two or three times a day every day. We have a very good working relationship with partners and we felt that with this particular product, the best way to go was not to try to own everything inhouse. It’s a gentleman’s agreement that has stuck well.”
While GNOMAD is an OTM solution today, it won’t be limited to that tomorrow. The changes will be a source of further cost savings as it becomes a system of systems, building a family of products around base components to support all the disadvantaged users all the way up to a command post battalion and brigade size. To do that, it will use the same component across the product line, cutting down training costs and introducing common logistics.
“Whether it is on the move, manpack, stationary or supporting a command post, the only thing that is going to change across the product line is your antenna,” Semple said. “If the company commander has a GNOMAD in his vehicle and they move to an observation point, they can dismount, grab a Ku-, Ka- or X-band antenna, a couple of mission modules and the modem put them together. Now you can have a wideband SATCOM system, saving money in the long run.”
“Supporting WGS is critical to bridging the forecasted SATCOM gap for the U.S. military,” said Lober, pointing to the Hughes HX system as a proven, global solution to support WGS requirements.
XTAR, the first commercial satellite operator providing services in the X-band frequency, is also supporting government procurement officers and users in helping reduce their costs for SATCOM services.
But the equation is not a simple one, suggests Andrew Ruszkowski, vice president of global sales and marketing for XTAR. “We believe that the best outcome results from not just focusing on lowering costs, but on controlling costs and creating efficiencies. In other words, improving value for money.
“With this focus, users will minimize the compromises they need to make in creating effective solutions with their lower budgets. As an example, users can focus on getting more throughput out of the same equipment or reduce the amount of capacity needed for achieving the same mission requirement,” he said.
Over the past few years, the availability of X-band space segment has been increasing. Systems developers have responded to this trend and have been aggressive in developing new technology that leverages the unique features of the frequency band and the constellation of MILSATCOM and commercial satellites available today.
“While innovation may initially result in some increase in capital expenditures, very quickly these are offset by significant reductions in recurring costs—from lower BW costs, for example—and often improved performance or capabilities for the user,” Ruszkowski noted.
When users deploy small antennas (for example, 0.45m or less for manpacks), especially for mobile applications, the amount of satellite capacity needed will vary based on whether the frequency is Kuor X-band. For Ku-band, spread spectrum carriers are often needed to close the links. This typically means more space segment capacity and higher recurring costs.
X-band, on the other hand, is the ideal environment for small and mobile terminals, because rarely does a successful link require spread-spectrum technology. As a result, less capacity is needed, and therefore costs are lower.
Satellite operators—for example, Squire Tech Solutions, a provider of first responder and mobile response network— have offered pooled resources for many years, but some government users have hesitated to use them because of a false perception that they are less secure than dedicated systems. As a result, they haven’t taken advantage of the cost savings offered by shared platforms.
“Recently, there has been a shift in awareness that shared TDMA and managed networks can be as secure as legacy SCPC networks. Over the past seven or eight years, Squire Tech has supplied federal and state operations with high bandwidth solutions, achieving great performance at a fraction of the cost with all the security they demand,” said Michael B. Zalle, vice president, Squire Tech Solutions.
With commercial X-band, this model should be more attractive. This frequency can only be used by government users, so the security concern of sharing resources with an unknown commercial entity does not exist.
The biggest source of cost, and therefore of potential cost savings, lies with the space segment, according to Tim Shroyer, chief technology officer for General Dynamics SATCOM Technologies.
Terminal costs are almost insignificant in comparison, even for larger earth station antennas, given the long-term space segment use, he noted. The use of larger antennas, where possible, usually results in increased efficiency and reduced total cost of ownership. If larger antennas cannot be used, then good modem operation is a necessity.
Suppliers like General Dynamics SATCOM Technologies can help by providing tightly integrated earth stations, with efficient antennas, tracking systems, uplink amplifiers, preferably high-efficiency solidstate power amplifiers, and state-of-the-art modems with good performance.
Cheaper terminals rarely provide reduced total cost of ownership, he added, for the space segment reason described above. Decreased earth terminal tracking performance is even more of a problem because reduced efficiency actually increases costs for transmission much more than any potential reduction in tracking or pointing system cost might achieve.
It makes good sense to use the most cost-effective subsystems in earth stations, such as right-sized solid-state power amplifiers and the right antenna for the job, analysts say. But saving a few dollars in subsystem cost, if it also results in decreased efficiency, actually increases the overall cost of ownership.
“Although per satellite unit costs dwarf those of user terminals, our military customers have increasingly become concerned with total ownership costs for space systems,” added Lober. “The total cost to procure terminals, integrate and install the terminals on platforms and then operate those terminals is far greater in terms of total ownership costs than the space segment— and that’s why Hughes is working to reduce costs by designing terminals, modems and networks for affordability, such as ease of integration and open standard waveforms.”
Another consideration, which is becoming critical, is the actual uplink antenna radiation pattern. In the commercial SATCOM world, there have been several cases of low-cost VSAT antennas being offered to the market that do not meet previous radiation pattern performance standards. When used, many of these antennas caused interference on adjacent satellites, and so had to be operated at lower power levels or completely replaced to ensure acceptable levels of Adjacent Satellite Interference performance.
Further innovative schemes to reduce the cost of ownership are also being sought, not least in the area of earth terminals. Here, a good architecture that supports current needs also provides flexibility to meet future link requirements. Today, that means the use of L-Band IF systems.
GD Satcom came up with L-Band IF architecture a few years ago, Shroyer noted, to replace synthesized up- and down-converters with block converters that provide higher reliability at lower cost.
Long term, this pays dividends as well, Shroyer explained. “As future modems are incorporated, the use of L-Band IF modems eliminates all need for more costly and complex synthesized converters. Monitor and control [M&C] systems are another area where significant enhancements are being seen. Modern M&C systems are cost-effective for even small terminals, and can provide features like uplink power control and flexible reconfiguration at no additional expense.
“Higher effective isotropic radiated power and better G/T on modern satellite transponders permit the use of higher orders of modulation on the modem systems, and this results in better overall efficiency—more bits in the same or less transponder power and bandwidth,” he continued. “It is now fairly easy to see how upgrading to a true state-of-theart modem can provide pay-back in two months or less, with future space segment savings resulting in continued lower costs per bit.”
Other cost benefits will naturally accrue from the inherent nature of the new SATCOM systems being used, Shroyer said. “As higher satellite frequency bands are used, like modern Ka-band satellites, higher orders of modulation can be used with adaptive modulation to dynamically fit the most bits possible into the links.” Sophisticated VSAT systems take advantage of these adaptive modulation techniques, but there are many links still on the air that do not incorporate those features.
“The biggest use of satellite transponders all over the world is video. Even DoD transmits a large amount of realtime video from various sources. Modern video compression systems and modulation approaches, like DVB-S2, can provide more video with fewer bits and less transponder power and bandwidth. Use of these upgraded technologies is being considered by large video users, but legacy systems are difficult to displace,” he said.
Spacecraft Savings with Electric Propulsion
Electric propulsion (EP) has long held the promise to enable huge cost savings for communication satellites, and that promise is now becoming a reality.
According to Boeing executives, four satellites will be built for the Asia Broadcast Satellite of Hong Kong and Mexico’s Satmex. These satellites feature a design that uses electric propulsion not only for maintaining position once in geostationary orbit (known as station keeping) but also for raising the satellite into geostationary orbit from their launch vehicle drop-off point. The result, Boeing has said, is a 6-kilowatt satellite that, while it would normally would weigh 4,000 kilograms at launch, will weigh around 2,000 kilograms, meaning they can be launched two at a time aboard a launch vehicle.
This new class of satellite does not utilize traditional chemical fueled rockets, but instead converts solar power to produce propulsion by ionizing and accelerating an inert xenon gas. These solar-powered EP systems produce propulsion very efficiently, as much as 10 times more efficiently than chemical propulsion systems presently used on spacecraft.
There are two types of ion thrusters that have been used for on-orbit stationkeeping: gridded ion and Hall thrusters. Hall thrusters are the preferred electric thruster technology for orbit-raising, however, due to their higher thrust to power compared to gridded ion thrusters.
Recently, the U.S. military experienced the advantages of electric propulsion. After being launched in August 2010, the first Advanced EHF spacecraft suffered a serious setback when the spacecraft’s main propulsion subsystem failed. The Lockheed Martin lead team saved the $2 billion military communications satellite by utilizing the Hall thrusters on-board to complete the push to GEO.
There are two U.S. companies that produce Hall thrusters: Buseak Co. and Aerojet, a GenCorp Inc. company. The first U.S. Hall thruster to be operational on-orbit was launched in November 2006 on the Air Force TacSat-2 spacecraft using a Busek Co. BHT-200 thruster. The Hall thruster that saved AEHF from loss was manufactured by Aerojet under the designation BPT-4000, which stands for Busek-Primex Thruster. Aerojet manufactures the device under a technology license to Busek Co.
Provided by W. Dan Williams, director of business development, and Bruce Pote, director of Hall thrusters, for Busek Co. Inc., Natick, Mass.
Collaboration for Affordability
The Low Cost Terminal (LCT) program developed jointly with TeleCommunication Systems (TCS), Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman seeks to produce highly affordable satellite terminals for protected communications on the move and at the halt, addressing the military’s need for lower cost technologies and systems to enable protected and secure communications for tactical warfighters in theater.
The three companies are operating under a collaborative agreement for TCS to manufacture, market and sell LCT products under license from Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.
The LCT solution takes advantage of Northrop Grumman’s and Lockheed Martin’s proven knowledge and engineering experience in protected military satellite communications through Milstar and Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) anti-jam satellites. In addition, it builds on TCS’ highly secure, deployable satellite communications systems, based on a modular architecture with plug-andplay interfaces and integrated logistics support.
As the next generation of AEHF satellites launches, the LCT solution will allow warfighters to quickly and affordably take full advantage of the satellites’ improved capability and expanded capacity.
Developed entirely with company investment, the LCT solution includes two variants of equipment: a Protected Communications on the Move (P-COTM) terminal and a Protected SIPRNet/NIPRNet Access Point (P-SNAP) terminal for communications at the halt. Developed jointly by Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, the baseline P-COTM terminal is interoperable with Milstar and AEHF systems currently in orbit. Electronics transmit at 256 Kbps and receive at 1.544 Mbps, with an uplink performance of 256 Kbps in rain or jamming environments.
The solution achieves affordability by leveraging existing designs, technology and government and commercial investments while implementing commercial best practices for procurement and production. The hardware and software are extensible to other form factor terminals, such as small, fixed terminals that can be packed in transit cases, shipboard terminals for small deck ships, and low-cost airborne terminals for unmanned aerial vehicles and piloted aircraft.
Developed in collaboration with Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin, P-SNAP incorporates both SNAP and P-COTM components. It is significantly smaller and lighter than currently available protected communication alternatives, and the complete system comes packaged in three transit cases. Two people can easily set up the system within 30 minutes.
All three companies are currently operating under the terms of a collaboration agreement. Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin shared costs equally in the development of the P-COTM, and TCS funded the P-SNAP development. TCS leads the integration, manufacturing, customer support and marketing/sales of the terminals. All three members contribute to the product line extensions, which could potentially be expanded to include airborne, shipborne and portable configurations.
“Given the current budget environment today and in the foreseeable future, the LCT solution is a prime example of how the private sector has utilized their own independent research and development funds to deliver affordable SATCOM systems to DoD,” said Al Green, vice president, business development, TCS Government Solutions Group. “The LCT employs advanced, production-ready technologies that enable SATCOM further down the chain than what is currently occurring.” ♦