A Look at Disruptive MilSatCom and the Hurdles of Getting Advanced Capability to the Battlefield
“We got to simplify the network – intelligence is in the networking, not in the battlefield.” – Jim Sawall, ALL.SPACE.
By Anne Wainscott-Sargent
27 March, 2023
WASHINGTON – Commanders in today’s battlefield environment need simplification and intelligent networking, said a retired 20-year expert on U.S. Army satcom requirements now leading U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) business development for UK-based smart terminal provider ALL.SPACE.
“We’ve got more and more equipment to get out in the field and we’ve got less trained soldiers. We got to simplify the network – intelligence is in the networking, not in the battlefield,” said Jim Sawall, speaking on a SATELLITE 2023 panel looking at disruptive MilSatCom systems.
The panel was packed with innovators from Fairwinds Technologies, NIC-4 (now branded Network Innovations U.S.), Kythera Space Solutions and Mercury Systems, who laid out the challenges of getting capability fielded in today’s complex military structure.
Dave Meadows, a four-decade satellite veteran, has built a career rapidly deployable connectivity solutions at Network Innovations U.S. He said a key trend is making use of commercial satcom and MilSatCom to create a hybrid architecture.
The government, he added, recognises the “abundance and diversity” of orbits, waveforms and frequency bands being introduced by commercial satcom players, but “it comes at a cost and that cost is complexity.”
He quoted retired U.S. Army Col. Gordon Ray Roberts who said earlier in the week that operators at the tactical edge “don’t have Ph.Ds. or wear lab coats.”
To avoid a commercial tech falling into the DoD’s “Valley of Death,” where research gets to a certain level and then dies, it’s important to start off with a simple set of requirements and objectives,” said Meadows, who is currently building a satellite communication service provider registry (SPR) prototype, to provide a structured catalog of commercial and military SATCOM services that can be allocated to fulfill DoD SATCOMM mission requirements.
Sawall of ALL.SPACE noted that Col. Shane Taylor, who leads the Army’s Tactical Network program, has a means of taking R&D and folding it into a program of record to mature the technology and then move it over to PDM SATCOM for procurement and fielding.
“The Army is working to get technology into the hands of soldiers,” said Sawall, noting that satcom champions in the U.S. Navy are pushing for that integration from one place “to take these technologies and move them right onto a ship.”
“It’s moving the right way. The problem is we have these people rotate out and when the new person comes in, we lose momentum.”
The DoD embraces an Agile software acquisition pathway that emphasises rapid delivery and user engagement. However, two ways to destroy Agile progress, said Meadows, is to start and then stop promising programs. This occurs when key tech champions within the services rotate to another role before they can complete strategic projects. Another challenge is that once technology is developed it must have a contract behind it. “If I can’t get a contract for three years, it’s obsolete,” he said.
“How about disruptive acquisition?” asked Todd Cress, director of business development at Kythera Space Solutions, summarizing the group’s frustration with a play on the panel’s disruptive tech focus.
Timothy Hillner, CTO and co-founder of Fairwinds Technologies, noted that DoD customers can’t replace their satcom all at once, so it’s important to leverage existing technologies on the path to digital transformation. For instance, the DoD has multiple GEO-only systems that it will continue to use as well as electronically pointed antennas and commercial and DoD-deployed modems that use their own waveforms and protocols.