A new “transport layer” constellation will help distribute tactical data — but won’t have defenses against anti-satellite weapons.
The U.S. military’s push to link every object on the battlefield leaped forward Thursday with the release of a request for proposals to build 20 tactical-communications satellites by 2022.
The year-old Space Development Agency, or SDA, hosted an industry day to tell satellite makers about its plans for “transport layer”: essentially, orbiting communications nodes to transfer data related to intelligence, battle management, navigation and timing; and more.
The transport layer won’t replace the military’s existing communications satellites or the commercial ones whose services it rents, SDA director Derek Tournear told reporters. Instead the new layer will focus on “tactical data points that need to be given to a weapon system.” It will ferry very-time-sensitive data from drones, satellites in low Earth orbit, and other sensors. Pentagon officials received $25 million to develop and flight-test the satellites in the 2020 budget, and have asked for just under $100 million in 2021, said Tournear.
A slide from Thursday’s industry day explains how the transport layer would be the middle one in SDA’s plans for a three-tier space architecture. The lowest layer will consist of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance satellites flying about 600 km above the earth. The Pentagon has said that this sensor layer is crucial for tracking future highly maneuverable hypersonic weapons, spotting missile launchers, and noting sudden troop movements. Those satellites will send the data up to the transport layer, which itself will fly beneath a second layer of sensor satellites orbiting at roughly 1,200 km. These would also be able to watch and track the trajectory of hypersonic or other missiles. All of the satellites will work to share timing and navigation data with the ground, essentially serving as an alternative GPS system.
Industry Day slide for space transport layer concept
The transport layer would be a critical part of the Pentagon’s elaborate new strategy of networked warfare, which rests on the idea of Joint All Domain Command and Control, or JADC2, a concept for an enormous communication web to link virtually every soldier, ship, drone, and jet together to share targeting and threat data instantaneously. Different services are working different parts of that strategy. The Air Force is putting together a big network called the Advanced Battle Management System or ABMS, while the Army is constructing its own, called Titan, to deliver sensor data across the service. These are supposed to be united under the JADC2 concept, but there’s some friction brewing between the services as to how that stitching together would work.
One of the things that’s “yet to come'' in SDA’s constellation plan is a layer to help protect the satellites from attack, a rising possibility as more and more countries sharpen their space warfare skills. SDA’s strategy does call for an eventual “Emerging Capabilities Cell to incubate new functional capabilities and address emerging or evolving threats, such as a Deterrence Capability to deter hostile action in deep space (beyond Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) up to lunar distances),” according to the RFP.
Last year, there was a push to equip future satellites to shoot down missiles or possibly defend themselves; but it gave way to budget pressure. Those capabilities “are not included in the initial capability matrix” of the first tranche, said Tournear. The emerging capabilities portion of the program “is [currently] funded only for the study phases.” Right now, the objective is to field more satellites quickly to make the entire constellation more resilient and thus, hopefully, less vulnerable.