Op-ed | While satellites are cool, military space networks must focus on interoperability

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How satellites are stitched together needs to be at the forefront of SDA's Transport Layer discussion

The Defense Department’s Space Development Agency just issued a request for support to build 144 spacecraft. The agency’s Tranche 1 Transport Layer is expected to be one of the most complex networks the U.S. government has ever deployed in space. 

This layer is the key enabler for moving data across domains for real-time targeting, analysis and decision-making to support warfighter missions. Manufacturing of low Earth orbit (LEO) space vehicles, in some respects, has become commoditized. The differentiation comes from the payload, sensors and communication components that deliver essential data sharing capability.

The ability of these satellites to form an intricate, globally integrated network will impact joint warfighting operations and the safety of U.S. forces on the ground. For that reason, how satellites are stitched together in a highly complex, multi-band and multi-network system needs to be at the forefront of the Transport Layer discussion.

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Network and system interoperability in the Transport Layer will be essential to unifying capabilities and ensuring resiliency. It is the glue that will bring space vehicles from different manufacturers together to ensure everything can interoperate seamlessly across the entire network, as well as enable connectivity and data sharing with other space-based networks. 

To achieve interoperability, the U.S. government should look to proven mechanisms to facilitate industry collaboration on a set of standards. Rather than create something new, using existing network standards will help facilitate commercial interoperability. 

In the same way the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) has facilitated industry agreement internationally on 5G cellular standards, the government should foster consensus on standards for subsystems that are expected to be common elements across vendors and constellations. 

Another example of an existing, widely accepted standard is Link 16. With the development of the XVI satellite, the first Link 16-capable LEO spacecraft, this long-trusted data link network is now entering the space age.

Creating a common set of validation requirements for Link 16 space nodes will enable multiple suppliers to develop Link 16 space payloads, while ensuring that payloads from different vendors will interoperate with existing terrestrial user equipment and ground segments. 

Done correctly, Link 16 nodes in space and a fully interoperable transport layer can form a foundational element of the Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) construct for global, resilient communications.

Embrace a different mindset

Not long ago, just the idea of the military collaborating with multiple vendors to launch a constellation of hundreds of satellites would have sounded impossible. Yet, the Space Development Agency (SDA) as it pursues commercial space solutions has outlined a viable path forward to rapidly deliver innovative space capabilities to warfighters to keep pace with emerging threats. 

The agency has adopted a capabilities-focused mindset, which starts with understanding the desired outcomes, and works backwards to deliver the core systems needed to make it happen. For its national defense space architecture, the SDA has clearly articulated a set of desired warfighting capabilities. The challenge now is staying focused on enabling those capabilities, rather than getting stuck on manufacturing space vehicles to meet a technical spec. 

Simultaneously, embracing military, academic and industry collaboration to leverage the best commercial technologies might mean forgoing ownership of that technology, and potentially some layers of control. 

For the government to quickly build networks from commercial technology, it must focus on owning the outcomes and the interoperability, rather than designing, developing and owning the intellectual property. This frees industry to invest and innovate, and allows the government to benefit from private sector competition.

Looking ahead, we need to remember building an integrated space architecture is more than just the space vehicle in a constellation. The approach must be holistic, and take into consideration the end-to-end capabilities needed to build a truly unified and resilient space network architecture. 

Taking this approach now is how we’ll deliver the information dominance and operational advantage DoD agencies need to deter and, if necessary, decisively defeat adversaries in the modern battlespace. 

Building and launching satellites is exciting. A launch is the culmination of many months, or even years, of work. But the launch is just one step in a process, and the spacecraft is only one link in the chain of a functioning network. 

The real value to end users is when the space vehicle becomes a cohesive part of the network ecosystem: gateways, user terminals, flight operations, and terrestrial networking. The most pressing challenges are not in manufacturing the space vehicles themselves, but in creating the interoperable payloads and the associated network elements that bring the constellation together to serve users. 

That’s why key programs like the SDA’s Transport Layer and other efforts to integrate space networks with wireless, cellular, government-specific and other terrestrial networks, are immensely important for future military operations and national security. 

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