Space Force prepares tender for narrowband satellite communications
WASHINGTON — The US Space Force expects to issue a tender for two Mobile User Objective System satellites early next year, in a multi-billion dollar effort designed to ensure military users have access to secure communications.
The service operates four active MUOS spacecraft and one in-orbit spare, all built by Lockheed Martin under a program that originated with the Navy but transferred to the Space Force in March. The narrowband communications satellites operate in the 300MHz to 3GHz frequency range, making them less susceptible to severe weather and ideal for secure information transmission.
Barbara Baker, deputy program manager for the Directorate of Military Satellite Communications and Positioning, Navigation and Timing at Space Systems Command, confirmed to C4ISRNET this week service plans to solicit bids from companies for early mitigation and design work in early 2023.
The Space Force disclosed this in its fiscal 2023 budget proposal plans to spend $3.7 billion to develop two more satellites that will be launched by the end of the decade. This includes $165 million in fiscal 2023 and $1.4 billion over the next five years.
The acquisition is intended to extend the lifespan of the constellation and is the result of a series of studies initiated by the Navy and conducted by the Space Force. Lockheed, Northrop Grumman and Boeing – according to a. three of the four largest military companies in the world Defense News Analysis 2022 — all participated in these studies. The Space Force may select more than one company for the first phase, which would be followed by competition between those companies.
Baker said in an Oct. 14 email that the service had not set a timeline for a contract to be awarded. She said the satellites would share common user interfaces with the other systems in orbit and might bring new capabilities, but gave no details.
“The satellites . . . will meet or exceed current system performance requirements and have compatible interfaces to ensure seamless integration with the MUOS ground systems and continuity of service,” she said.
Today’s MUOS satellites, which have replaced the Ultra High Frequency Follow-on system, carry two payloads – one to maintain the legacy UHF network and a second that will provide a new broadband code division multiple access capability . The system is said to offer 10 times the capacity of its predecessor.
Justin Keller, Lockheed’s director of advanced programs and military space, told C4ISRNET Oct. 9 the company attended an industry day with the Space Force and other potential vendors in September. The message from the service, he said, is that they want a low-risk solution that prioritizes schedule.
“Their focus is on schedule and low risk, and we stand behind them 100%,” he said. “I think the government, the Space Force, came up with a really good plan to get us there.”
In addition to schedule and risk management, the Space Force prioritizes resilience as it makes near-term upgrades to systems like MUOS and makes plans for future versions of these constellations. The service is scheduled to begin analysis next year to address its long-term needs for narrowband communications.
Keller noted that balancing these requirements can be a challenge for satellites like these, which are not designed to withstand cyber threats and enemy interference. The Space Force has not disclosed what limited resilience measures it might want for the sixth and seventh MUOS starships, as these capabilities are often classified.
“They hope to address them [threats] that won’t affect their schedule,” he said. “We’ve worked a lot on that.”
As the Space Force moves forward with plans to purchase more MUOS satellites, lawmakers have raised concerns about the performance of the current capacity. The program experienced significant field delays, especially in the terminals and devices that allow users to connect to the system. A 2021 Government Accounting Office The report noted that ground crew were unable to take full advantage of the satellite’s advanced capabilities.
In the Senate version of the Fiscal Year 2023 defense bill, lawmakers referenced GAO’s work and required demonstration of a “narrowband gap-fill” capability by January 2025. The Senate Armed Services Committee also wants a status report on the MUOS successor program work.
Keller noted that while the program has suffered setbacks, user feedback has improved as more terminals are deployed.
“Now that they have the terminals, all we’ve heard is universal praise for the particular quality of service compared to what they had before,” he said.