After lengthy delays, the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) communications satellite program is progressing smoothly without any loss of key performance features. That’s important, because new satellites must soon replace the aging Milstar constellation in carrying the most sensitive transmissions of the joint force. AEHF will offer ten times the carrying capacity and user connections of Milstar, with sophisticated protection against jamming, interception and other potential enemy tactics. Combined with less secure but higher-capacity Wideband Global System satellites, AEHF will provide the core of the Pentagon’s next-generation orbital communications capabilities.
Connectivity — the ability to exchange diverse information with other friendly forces in a timely fashion — is one of the key features distinguishing U.S. forces from those of other nations. While it is possible to achieve high-capacity communications using terrestrial links such as fiber, only spacecraft can provide rapid global reach to remote and disadvantaged users. But AEHF is different from other communications satellites (“satcoms”) in guaranteeing secure communications that will penetrate any kind of weather or enemy interference. When Secretary Gates canceled the hugely ambitious Transformational Satellite Communications program earlier this year, he left AEHF as the only system that can meet future joint requirements for secure communications.
Having already committed to three geosynchronous satellites — the first of which will be launched next year — the defense department looks likely to eventually buy six or more AEHF spacecraft. But there is resistance to paying that bill among military officials who are absorbed in fighting current conflicts, because enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan have exhibited little skill in compromising less secure communications links. That’s actually somewhat surprising, since commercial jamming devices are known to exist in Iraq. But in the absence of urgent threats to joint-force connectivity, the tendency is to go with whatever solution is good enough.
“Good enough” in the satcom business could mean an unprotected commercial satellite generating signals that are easily disrupted or intercepted. The danger in going that route is obvious. What if current enemies become more adept at information warfare? What if the same unprotected systems need to be used in warfare with a really sophisticated electronic adversary like China? War games have cast doubt on the capacity of U.S. forces to maintain communications links when fighting such enemies, even though joint doctrine is now based on the assumption of network availability. So before policymakers come up with some bright ideas for how to communicate without buying more AEHF satellites, they might want to make sure they know how those ideas would fare against a real adversary — you know, one with planes, missiles and jamming systems.
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