WASHINGTON: Revamping how it develops, buys and maintains military communications satellites will be one of the first tests for the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), working with systems engineering firm LinQuest, in implementing its new SMC 2.0 framework.
“The exciting thing for us is that we are the first systems engineering and integration contract out of the shoot after they declared Initial Operating Capability (IOC) on SMC 2.0,” Chris Beres, general manager of LinQuest’s Space Systems Engineering and Integration Group, told me.
LinQuest, Beres said, is supporting SMC at every stage of its reorganization and its acquisition processes and programs — including projects at early, “incubation” stages to actual disposal of military satellites under a new working under a new $562 million contract. Noting that “everybody is watching SMC right now, ” Beres said that SMC leadership is “very receptive” to new ideas because they realize “they don’t have all the answers.”
Among other aspects of SMC’s milsatcom program, LinQuest is supporting SMC’s exploration of how to better take advantage of the rapid pace of innovation in the commercial space sector. The company is managing three “pathfinder” projects aimed at “commercial integration with military space,” Beres said. These are: 1) leasing bandwidth on a commercial communications satellite and figuring out how to put it to military use; 2) leasing an entire transponder on a commercial satellite and integrating it with military communications; and 3) developing an experimental “flexible modem interface” that allows users to roam across commercial, and military, communications satellites — much like a cellphone roams for tower access outside your home network.
His group, largely embedded at SMC at Los Angles AFB, will be supporting SMC leaders as they “transition to full operational capability” for the reorganization. The company is “providing highly sophisticated systems engineering work and advice to assist the MILSATCOM Mission Area adapt to the changing SMC 2.0 framework.”
This work is all part of the MILSATCOM Systems Engineering, Integration and Test (MSEIT) program. It includes support for “all satellites, terminals, and networks for worldwide tactical, strategic, and wideband military communications,” according to a July 8 LinQuest press release. The contract runs for seven-and-a-half years.
LinQuest’s purview only covers SMC’s MILSATCOM activities, but it will require SMC to put into place new oversight processes and lines of authority to match its new integrated strategy that eschews mission-only stovepipes.
Launched by SMC chief Lt. Gen. John Thompson in 2018 after vigorous promotion by then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, SMC 2.0 is a response to years of widespread criticism — both at the Pentagon and within Congress — about the slow and clunky acquisition process governing satellites. The process has often left the military reliant on decades-old technology, with no options for upgrading other than wholesale, expensive replacement. SMC 2.0 has been designed to reorganize ‘vertical stovepipes’ — that is, programs focused on a single mission area such as milsatcom — and “turns them on their side,” Beres explained, with the goal of creating a so-called ‘horizontal enterprise.’
Under the reorganization, the mission directorates are being replaced by four cross-cutting organizations: a Development Corps (for innovation and prototyping), a Production Corps, an Enterprise Corps (for launch services and product support) and an Atlas Corps (for business management). To ensure integration across programs, SMC will also hire a so-called Portfolio Architect. SMC 2.0 is expected to achieve full operational capability by the end of this year.
How the MILSATCOM activities being managed by LinQuest will fit into this new structure “still not been formalized,” Beres said, “but we understand that our MSEIT efforts will be managed by a single ‘SATCOM Mission Area Integrator.’ Yes, we will still be working all of the programs, across of the phases, but the Mission Area Integrator will deploy his/her resources across the Corps – likely through coordination with each of the Corps PEO’s (program executive officers),” he explained.
SMC did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The company also is deeply involved in the development of “protected tactical waveforms” for tactical communications under the follow-on program to the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) military communications satellite network. The waveforms will be integrated into the Protected Tactical Satellite Communication Program, which under the AEHF follow-on plan will be split from the strategic communications mission.
Built by Lockheed Martin, with a payload by Northrop Grumman, the fifth AEHF satellite in the six-satellite constellation was expected to be launched earlier this year. However, that launch has been delayed several times (currently planned for no earlier than Aug. 8) because of a component problem on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket — a problem that also has delayed the launch of the Global Positioning System (GPS) III satellite. LinQuest, by the way, provides sustainment of the four AEHF satellites already on orbit.
The new architecture for the AEHF follow-on will include satellites built to help warfighters on the ground (either new custom built or via hosted payloads on commercial birds), as well as an “Evolved Strategic Satellite Communications (ESS) system” for the traditional AEHF functions of providing protected, anti-jam communications for the president and the top US military leadership. The follow-on effort is in preliminary design stages now, with first deployment not expected until at least 2026, Beres said.
Beyond SMC, Beres says LinQuest is also keeping a keen eye on the Pentagon’s embattled Space Defense Agency (SDA) as it hones its mission goals, and refines its notional “Next Generation Architecture.” “We are trying to track what they want to do and how we can help,” said Beres, noting that the company has plenty of expertise in missile warning, and space-base data and voice transport layers. LinQuest was one of the many companies participating SDA’s first industry day July 23.
The industry went forward despite congressional skepticism about the office’s mission and concerns about leadership turmoil — concerns that led to the House Armed Services Committee’s refusal earlier this month of the Pentagon’s request to reprogram $15 million in fiscal year 2019 funding to stand up the office’s work. Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee has refused to fund SDA until DoD comes up with ore specific plans about its future organization, funding and mission sets.