Imagine how far the American Revolution would have gotten if the Declaration of Independence had been written in Latin. Many of the Founders would have understood it because they were schooled in the classics, but the meaning of the document would have been largely lost outside a small, educated elite. Without widespread understanding of the aspirations and grievances motivating patriots, the revolution might have been stillborn.
That’s the problem that the Transformational Communications Satellite (T-SAT) faces today. Conceived as the centerpiece of a revolution in military communications, it has the potential to provide war-fighters around the globe with internet-like connectivity to all the resources of the joint force, regardless of whether they are on the move, under fire, or otherwise disadvantaged. But Congress doesn’t understand the program, which to the uninitiated sounds like a raft of other networking initiatives. So funding has been slashed, the date of the first launch has receded, and there is doubt the constellation will ever be built.
Losing T-SAT would be a tragedy, because it can fill many gaps in the existing communications system. It is part of a broader Transformational Communications Architecture fashioned in 2003 to replace the existing patchwork of disconnected networks operated by the defense department, intelligence community and NASA with a single, integrated global grid. Along with the Wideband Gapfiller System and a handful of other equally esoteric satellites, it would comprise a space segment continuously linked to high-capacity fiber-optic lines on the ground. Fiber uses light to transmit data, which due to its higher frequency (vibrations per second) can carry much more information than radio-frequency links.
T-SAT would exploit this same principle in space, using laser links to convey vast amounts of information instantly between satellites, and also to aircraft flying high enough above the clouds to avoid interference with light beams. For the last few miles to tactical users on the ground, the information would be translated into slower radio-frequency pulses, but new methods of compressing and combining data flows promise to make even these “RF” links more robust than in the past.
Higher-capacity links are just the beginning of what makes T-SAT valuable. It will be designed around the same packet-switching technology used on the internet, which permits much more efficient use of available bandwidth by slicing up messages into brief bursts that can travel through any combination of networks to be reassembled in the proper order at their destination. This “internet-protocol” approach to connectivity is the key to the Worldwide Web, which affords all users easy access to a range of media. T-SAT would deliver the same resources to war-fighters under fire in places like Fallujah, so they can see whatever reconnaissance drones and spy satellites are seeing as it happens.
There is more: signals that are nearly impossible for enemies to intercept or jam, bulk encryption of transmissions, dynamic allocation of bandwidth to assure forces under fire get the capacity they need immediately, etc. And all of these advantages would be delivered through ground terminals with receiving dishes barely a foot in diameter, enabling troops to access the global grid under virtually any circumstances. It’s obvious that lives would be saved, as would money, by implementing such breakthroughs. The question is whether Congress can grasp the promise of T-SAT, and keep it on track, even as other legacies of the Rumsfeld years are gradually dismantled.
Find Archived Articles: