Military pushes to take advantage of new satellite capacity

The Defense Department is moving rapidly to distribute satellite terminals that can handle X- and Ka-band signals required for the new Wideband Global Satellite system.

Donald Hershberger is project leader of the $640 million Modernization of Enterprise Terminals program, a Defense Communications and Army Transmission Systems (DCATS) Project Office effort for which Harris was awarded a contract earlier this year. Team DCATS, as it is known, is part of the Army’s Program Executive Office for Enterprise Information Systems.

The MET program's goal is to install new terminals around the world to enable U.S. military forces to take advantage of the huge increases in capacity provided by new fleets of communications satellites.

Contributing writer Brian Robinson spoke with Hershberger about the technical aspects implementation schedule and the overall strategy of the MET program, which is critical to the Army’s plans for the network-centric battlefield.

DS: What are the drivers for the MET program?

Hershberger: A major part of the mission of these enterprise terminals is for reach-back for the deployed warfighter. Basically, we provide [warfighters] access to the Global Information Grid.

One of the primary drivers [of the MET program] was the new Wideband Global Satellite system that is now being deployed. We knew that was coming up a number of years ago, and we wanted to make sure that we had the terminals there to fully exploit that new WGS system because we knew it had a lot more capabilities and a lot more functions than the old Defense Satellite Communications System.

The MET terminal will simultaneously handle both X- and Ka-band signals, which WGS uses. DSCS can basically only do X. One WGS satellite is equal to about 10 DSCS satellites in terms of the bandwidth it provides.

The other driver was that our fixed enterprise terminal family of terminals has been out there for quite a few years. We started deploying those in the mid-1970s. And the other two — GSC-52 and GSC-39 type terminals — were deployed in the early and mid-1980s. So they are approaching their end of life cycles.

We did do a few upgrades and modernizations of those terminals, but that was only done on the electronics of the terminals. The antennas were pretty much ignored. And now, with WGS being deployed, we need a system out there that will extend the life of our enterprise terminal system beyond 2025. And the fixed terminal system right now will not do that unless we do something pretty drastic.

DS: Are there any other programs out there that MET is tied to?

Hershberger: No, we’re pretty much independent of any other program because this enterprise family of terminals is unique. There’s nothing even equivalent to it — or close to it — in any other service or function in [the Defense Department]. I think we’re the only game in town, really.

DS: When you replace these terminals, will it be on a priority basis?

Hershberger: Yes. That’s based on, first of all, when the last upgrade was done to the system. We’ve done these past upgrades over a period of seven or eight years, so that’s a factor. We’re also taking advantage of ongoing construction projects at various sites. The bottom line is funding. We’re trying to save the government money.

DS: The program involves three basic antenna configurations. How is the demand spread among those?

Hershberger: Well, we have the large fixed, which is the predominant one. It’s a 12.2-meter antenna, according to Harris’ design. The next in line would be the transportable. That’s a 7.2-meter antenna. It’s not tactical, but it is transportable. It can be picked up and moved to various locations. And there will probably be eight to ten of those. That will be a much smaller percentage [of the total]. And then we have the small fixed terminal, which right now is still an exercised option on the contract. We’re still looking for validated requirements for that one. That’s 4.8 meters.

DS: How is the program structured? Will you deploy a specific number of terminals per year, or will it depend on particular strategic needs?

Hershberger: It’s a firm-fixed price, indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract. The base contract is for five years.

The first two-and-a-half years of that is what we call first article integration and testing of the four basic terminals we’re buying: two large fixed and two transportable terminals. We gave three directives to the bidders on this. We wanted it cost-based and modular and an open-systems architecture. So they are using a lot of cost-based subsystems and integrating those together into an overall MET system that will meet the performance requirements we’ve specified.

Delivery will be after the first 30 months. We have about eight years to upgrade the 80 terminals we have out there right now, so that’s going to be about 10 a year that we will be producing and installing.

DS: What flexibility is built into the program for near-term demand, in case someone comes and tells you that they need a particular terminal at a particular location ahead of schedule?

Hershberger: I think we’re flexible in terms of location. As far as the numbers of the terminals are concerned, there’s a ceiling of 20 large fixed terminals that we can order in one year. We only plan to order 10, though we do have a surge capability. But that all depends on funding.

DS: The terminals offer high-altitude electromagnetic pulse protection as an option. What does that protection involve, and why is it an option instead of standard?

Hershberger: That’s a phenomenon that occurs when you have a high-altitude nuclear burst, and it creates an intense electromagnetic field that induces currents on all metal objects that destroys the earth terminal itself. So what we require is metallic closures that will shield our components from this electromagnetic field and [allow] our cables to be sealed.

It can be very expensive to do that because this is a very intense field, and our equipment is very sensitive to this kind of phenomenon. So the combination of the two requires that the shielding be very effective in terms of attenuation, and that translates into money. So it’s not cheap. That’s why we have it as an option and not a standard feature on every terminal.

DS: Electromagnetic pulse protection has become more of a focus in recent years, and it’s considered one of the main vulnerabilities on the battlefield. Why isn’t high-altitude electromagnetic pulse protection required?

Hershberger: Well, I guess it’s a trade-off. That decision of whether a terminal gets [such protection] or not is probably made at the [Office of the Secretary of Defense] level or above. And I’m sure the decision is basically driven by cost.

DS: One of the justifications for the MET program is that it will lessen DOD’s reliance on commercial satellite communications. Why is that?

Hershberger: Well, I think the real answer is it’s a combination of MET and WGS satellites. I think, because of the huge capacity that one of these WGS satellites has, it will take a bigger load than DSCS can today, a much bigger load. It’s a combination of the satellite and earth terminal.

DS: What things will influence the direction of the MET program? Is this something that’s now set in stone? Or are there things that could throw the schedule off or perhaps accelerate it?

Hershberger: Well, right now, we see it going on as planned. We awarded the contract to Harris on April 22. So I think right now, we’re moving on as planned. I think the biggest impact we see, since this is a 10-year program, is funding, and it’s impossible for us to project funding out for even the next few years.