To maintain its ability to operate across the globe, the Pentagon turns to myriad tools and resources. Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, or C4ISR, is used to maintain situational awareness and keep decision-makers informed. And U.S. space-based C4ISR systems play an essential role.
Fifty years ago, when astronauts first explored outer space, it was uncharted territory. Today, thanks to the democratization of technology, things are getting a little crowded in orbit. Commercial giants, Silicon Valley startups, major defense companies and universities are all engaged in this era of developing and delivering space capabilities — including C4ISR solutions imperative to national security and U.S. space preeminence.
C4ISR is an umbrella term for key elements of the global national security infrastructure. These sophisticated communications and information systems are vital to U.S. security and military superiority.
For example, the Defense Department relies on GPS satellites for navigation and remote sensing systems for situational awareness of U.S. adversaries.
The rapid increase in space-based technology is opening up new missions and giving the U.S. a competitive advantage. But there’s also a downfall to that proliferation.
New capabilities mean new risks for space-enabled services, says Keith Johnson, Leidos Intelligence Group’s chief technology officer.
For instance, GPS signals can be spoofed to make something appear it’s in a different location. Images from satellites can also be manipulated to show something that doesn’t exist in reality. Additionally, jamming technologies could disrupt communications services and seriously interfere with military command and control.
“It’s hard to consistently spoof the human brain, but it’s easier to repeatedly trick our current generation of artificial intelligence and machine learning models,” Johnson says. “As we increasingly integrate algorithms into space-based C4ISR, we have to create mechanisms that can check and look for spoofing capabilities and not allow our systems to react in a way that they shouldn’t.”
Applying C4ISR Best Practices from Other Warfighting Domains
Leidos has been providing mission support and innovation across the defense and intelligence community for over 40 years, drawing on expertise gleaned from supporting customers across air, sea and land and figuring out how to apply them in space.
“We’re focusing on how we can use autonomy more in the space mission,” Johnson says. “We have some advanced capabilities around autonomy right now; some in space and some in the air, and a lot in the marine environment.”
One maritime success story is Sea Hunter, an autonomous unmanned surface vehicle powered by AI instead of a crew. Designed and built by Leidos, Sea Hunter made history last year as the first-ever vessel to sail from San Diego, California, to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and back entirely autonomously — a trip that’s over 5,750 miles.
Leidos now wants to do the same thing — but in space.
“We’re focused on taking legacy stovepipes and human-centric space systems and making them more autonomous, and leveraging commercial capabilities in space,” Johnson says.
New commercial launch capabilities from companies like Space X are getting the headlines, but there are other space-based commercial capabilities that offer opportunities to deliver novel or enhanced C4ISR services. Leidos has been working on pushing the boundaries of current commercial space-based processes and protocols. One example is the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload, or CHIRP, which launched as a hosted payload on an SES commercial communications satellite.
CHIRP was built for a one-year mission life, but ended up being used for 27 months until finally decommissioned in December 2013.
“We were able to demonstrate an incredible capability on a budget that’s much, much more effective than how our customers typically get systems into space,” Johnson says.
The Leidos Way
Leidos’ mission support and innovative capabilities span space surveillance, navigation and timing, missile warning and space situational awareness. The company’s approach to innovation in space is to help customers solve their mission challenges with emerging technologies. It starts with identifying the mission gaps customers have and then finding new, creative ways to solve them.
“We really are always trying to think of mission-outcome-based innovation,” Johnson said.
But to truly introduce innovation in technology, change management is vital.
In the area of space capabilities, the company considers an agency’s current workflows, workforce and systems — as well as the existing capabilities that meet national security missions.
“We can’t just start from scratch and think those don’t exist,” Johnson says. “We want to assume they are functioning within an overall mission context. And then we figure out how can we introduce new capabilities that augment and complement what’s already in place.”
It’s at this stage Leidos brings in the technology to deliver new innovative approaches for its customers, Johnson says.
“That’s where Leidos has the advantage; we’re embedded with major space agencies and the agencies that benefit from the resources we have in space,” he notes.
As new capabilities are launched, particularly in the commercial world, defense decision-makers should consider how they can leverage the growing commercial space ecosystem.
One area Leidos is investigating is figuring out how to ingest all the commercially generated space data and use it in conjunction with data the government space agencies have internally, so the company can create richer, better products for its national security customers, Johnson says.
“We are a data-centric organization; we have to think of data as the first-class citizen,” he notes. “Instead of thinking of applications or hardware as first class, it’s really the data that’s the key.”
The Future of C4ISR
Today, all the domains are fairly separated but future C4ISR will be multi-domain and seamlessly incorporated across space, air, land and sea, Johnson predicts.
Space operations will also become more automated, perhaps even allowing satellites to operate more autonomously, without waiting for new commands with the ground, he says.
Faced with increasing militarization and threats, Johnson forecasts space operations will also become more resilient.
Finally, space is going to be more democratized, according to Johnson, and as space costs decrease, even smaller countries will launch space capabilities.
But how that plays out is as of yet uncertain — and getting there requires some planning, Johnson points out.
“We’ll just have to think about what that looks like when there’s space C4ISR capabilities that are available to a larger amount of countries, organizations and agencies around the world,” he says.