Military Embedded Systems

Automated network management keeps military SATCOM users connected


June 18, 2024

Rick Lober

Hughes Network Systems

Rajeev Gopal

Hughes Network Systems

Automated network management keeps military SATCOM users connected
Artist's rendering of geosynchronous satellite--U.S. Space Force Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program. Image courtesy U.S. Space Force.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and the U.S. Space Force (USSF) are starting to implement the government’s Digital Modernization Strategy [published in 2019], including enhanced resilient architectures, as it applies to DoD satellite communications (SATCOM). This SATCOM modernization, including enterprise management and control, will enable access to core enterprise capabilities and increase the flexibility, agility, and resiliency of DoD SATCOM.

U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) satellite communications (SATCOM) users will be able to leverage a hybrid mix of communications technologies, including both commercial and military solutions, under the government’s digital modernization strategy.

These technologies will expand the amount of capacity available across the globe as well as in specific regions, using the global reach of LEO [low-Earth orbit] satellites and the extremely high capacity available from state-of-the-art GEO [geostationary equatorial orbit] satellites, including the JUPITER 3 (Hughes/EchoStar) satellite.

Commercial SATCOM solutions will help support this modernization effort so that warfighters can stay connected for much-needed mission resilience. Today, losing a signal can end a mission and leave personnel isolated for hours or days. The multi­transport communications capabilities available to the DoD – that is, GEO, MEO [medium-Earth orbit], and LEO satellites as well as 5G and other terrestrial technologies – must be orchestrated using dynamic, agile network orchestration that works at the speed of the mission.

Agile, software-defined networking will integrate, synchronize, and orchestrate all these communications networks so they can anticipate and realign assets in near real time. Siloed systems will not provide the optimized flexibility and control that warfighters and commanders require.

Innovation and change

Discussions during the 2024 National Space Symposium addressed an important issue: How the Department of Defense (DoD) can work more deliberately with commercial industry to modernize its capabilities. John F. Plumb, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, focused on the DoD’s need to adapt to the rapidly changing, strategic space environment, one which does not favor the slow or those resistant to change. Secretary Plumb highlighted that commercial space integration will be critical to making these changes. Innovation from the commercial space sector has come at amazing speed and scale over the past several years. Commercial providers understand that the DoD wants to harness this speed and industry’s cost-effectiveness.

Modernization strategies

The DoD has worked hard in recent years to modernize its digital capabilities so that the U.S. military can maintain its strength and leadership in today’s constantly evolving, highly competitive environment. As a core part of this effort, DoD leaders have focused on adopting enterprise systems across the department. The 2019 DoD Digital Modernization Strategy, a central document in this modernization work, specifically mentions one key element regarding enterprise systems: formalize and implement the Enterprise SATCOM Management and Control Reference Architecture.

DoD leadership is initiating steps to modernize DoD SATCOM into a resilient architecture that can support tactically relevant enterprise capabilities. These efforts directly support the U.S. Space Force (USSF) Vision for Satellite Communications. Retired U.S. Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) Commander General John W. “Jay” Raymond issued this vision for SATCOM, also known as the “Fighting SATCOM,” strategy and stated that AFSPC must provide an operationally effective, affordable, resilient, and secure satellite-communications architecture that supports global mission priorities and is adaptable to rapidly changing requirements, technologies, and threats. The strategy asserted that this architecture needs to deliver enterprise SATCOM capabilities to the Commander of the United States Space Command, to support joint warfighters across the full spectrum of conflict, at the speed of relevance, and in contested, degraded, and operationally limited environments.

General Raymond’s Fighting SATCOM vision foresaw the need to fulfill these goals by including a management and control framework to coordinate assets and tasking, flexible terminals that can operate in military platforms/environments, flexible networks to rapidly restore network connections, and a diverse set of space assets to provide path redundancy and operational flexibility. The flexible terminals would need the capability to “roam” across multiple waveforms, bands, and other elements of the architecture including commercial and international partner systems. This architecture can function quickly based on the use of open standards and modular satellite architectures to enable the network to deliver the most powerful benefits to the user, including seamless information-sharing across systems and users.

This approach also supports the integration of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology that can lower the cost of building and maintaining the network, enabling faster software and hardware upgrades to minimize obsolescence and leverage the latest security protocols. All of these tools would help the SATCOM architecture adapt to the operational environment as it evolves, without a soldier’s manual intervention. In fact, using this paradigm, the DoD can enhance these technologies over time and leverage leading-edge technologies much more quickly – wireless LTE, 5G, cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML).

DoD collaborates with industry

Commercial providers have worked alongside the DoD to formulate the key elements of this enterprise SATCOM network management system. In 2017, the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) launched the COMSATCOM Pilot Program, where several commercial providers helped assess the ideal hybrid SATCOM architecture and how diverse systems could work together to enable more flexible and resilient military satellite communications. (Figure 1.)

[Figure 1 ǀ Commercial providers worked alongside the key elements of the enterprise satellite communications network management system.]

This pilot program encompassed three phases. In the first phase, a SATCOM strategy was recommended that supports interoperability for wideband applications to enhance communications infrastructure and reduce acquisition and operations costs. The second phase (2018) focused on how this interoperable model could be implemented by creating a flexible modem interface standard for demonstration. To support this phase, Hughes produced new terminal management agent (TMA) software implementing the USAF flexible modem interface (FMI) standard so DoD and industry could demonstrate and evaluate it.

Work on the COMSATCOM pilot program continued in 2019 with Hughes and NASA together testing the TMA/FMI technology in a demonstration with the International Space Station (ISS), autonomously switching a communications signal from the FMI-outfitted ground terminal between different modems aboard the ISS. Also demonstrated: The TMA/FMI and enterprise management and control (EMC) technologies in 2020 with full primary, alternate, continency, and emergency (PACE) planning and situational awareness using a software-defined HM400 modem and a GetSat Ku-band aero antenna with a video sensor and a Comtech DMD-2050E. This demonstration was associated with a U.S. Space Force (USSF) Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) contract focused on producing an EMC architecture for mission planning with integrated situational awareness and an FMI-enabled aero terminal prototype for satellite communications. The pilot program continued with Phase 3 to study order-of-magnitude improvements in SATCOM capability, affordability, and resiliency.

Work to create the EMC infrastructure continued in 2022, when the DoD CIO Office issued the Enterprise SATCOM Management and Control (ESMC) Implementation Plan. This ESMC plan has provided guidelines for EMC to help with resiliency and interoperability objectives across commercial and DoD satellite communication systems, and the foundational capabilities necessary for the ongoing future SATCOM Force Design, including increased reliance on commercial SATCOM. To realize the plan’s core capabilities, several key architecture components need to mature and then become standardized by the MILSATCOM and COMSATCOM communities to offer true “resiliency-as-a-service” to the DoD. Standardization of nomenclature, functional partitioning, and interface definitions is necessary to meet the core capability objectives.

Innovation on AI and software-defined networks

The ESMC-related developments by USSF Space Systems Command (SSC) and industry contractors have relied on available commercial industry innovation that could be leveraged as quickly as possible. The new technology has included artificial intelligence (AI) and software-defined networks (SDNs), two elements addressed in the 2019 DoD Digital Modernization Strategy. This strategy stated that the military competitor who can harness and exploit AI’s potential the fastest will accrue a significant military advantage.

For the DoD, a software-defined network would enable a network administrator to shape traffic from a centralized control console without having to touch individual switches and deliver services to wherever they are needed in the network, without regard to what specific devices a server or other hardware components are connected. The key technologies for SDN implementation are functional separation, network virtualization, and automation through programmability.

One example of commercial innovation is the smart network edge (SNE) software created by Hughes and derived from the TMA capability initially produced in 2018. This standards-based capability leverages the intelligence of AI to power autonomous satellite terminal control across diverse modems, services, satellites, and service providers. The software uses situational data – including the operational environment, mission plans, potential satellite access issues, and mission priority based on available services – to make autonomous decisions about its host terminal’s use of diverse resources.

SNE, working as a terminal agent, uses policies from EMC and overrides stovepiped systems to enable user access to diverse platforms from a single terminal without depending on single-threaded satellite systems which are vulnerable to interference due to many factors, including malicious actors, poor antenna angles, misaligned directional pointing, and more. This terminal agent also makes planning decisions based on mission priority; adverse events such as jamming, cyberattacks, and network problems; hardware failures; and availability or suitability of multi-orbit capacity at the tactical site. (Figure 2.)

[Figure 2 ǀ A policy rule engine helps users and systems make planning decisions.]

Using this tool, soldiers would no longer need to change communications elements manually when original operational configurations fail and would enjoy continuous connectivity to meet mission requirements. On a satellite terminal, if a degraded or disrupted transmission occurs for any reason, automated terminal management and control will use alternate networks to “self-heal” connections. Continuous connectivity is key: According to a statement made in early 2024 by Clare Hopper, director of the USSF Commercial Satellite Communications Office, today’s military needs reliable, resilient, and secure communications as they are essential for coordination across vast distances.

ESMC is a key enabler for SATCOM flexibility and interoperability across diverse SATCOM technologies, orbits, and domains. The architecture, combined with automation at the edge, automated planning, and resource allocation with intelligent network management, can provide this flexibility across military and commercial GEO/MEO/LEO SATCOM, secure 5G, and other terrestrial transport capabilities. These multiple transports ensure connectivity in all environments. With automated orchestration, this framework can leverage the diversity and redundancy needed for enhanced resiliency. Intelligent ESMC must provide access to multiple transport paths as no one technology or service provider can meet all DoD requirements. When the ESMC leverages AI and automation to manage these paths, it can very quickly determine the best transport for the specific time and use case.

ESMC and the automated architecture can support automated PACE planning and dynamic resource allocation for realigning assets in near-real time, speed that is not available today. The time can be reduced from hours/days down to seconds, critical in decision-making and overall information dominance.

Automated planning: A planner provides input for creating a plan for these terminals. After approval, the plan is activated and automatically distributed to the terminals and peer-management system, which are part of the mission. Historically, this step has been done with time-consuming satellite access request (SAR) and gateway access request (GAR) manual processes. The network management system (NMS) enhances the request process with automatic generation of plans by using a rules-based engine and addressing mission input from the operator. NMS includes full PACE facets in these plans so that SNE can activate and use various components to address specific adversities such as cyberattacks, RF jamming, or equipment failure. In certain situations, it may be better for the NMS to regenerate these plans as part of dynamic planning and resource allocation.

Management interfaces: NMS and SNE support FTI [fault-tolerant interface], being standardized with IEEE and the U.S. DoD, for automated distribution of plans and terminal configuration to terminals and collecting situational awareness data to include network, cyber, RF, and equipment status and performance. NMS also supports the service provider interface to provide bulk resource-configuration information to a peer-management system (such as gateway element management system) and collect bulk situational-awareness information from the peer for multiple terminals under their scope.

Ensuring military SATCOM users stay connected

The DoD’s Enterprise SATCOM Management and Control Implementation Plan spells out how the DoD plans to achieve DoD SATCOM modernization through development of and access to core enterprise capabilities. Once employed, these capabilities will increase the flexibility, agility, and resiliency of DoD SATCOM, while leveraging the full use of a hybrid, heterogeneous enterprise that uses the best mix of commercial and military solutions. Such a plan can become a reality by integrating commercial industry innovation quickly: Automation will provide dynamic PACE planning by leveraging an AI-based rules-based engine, delivering real-time monitoring of transport links and enabling one or more active transports based on the platform and its deployment of the radios and terminal. U.S and global national security require near-real time situational awareness and communications for mission success in contested environments.

Rick Lober is Vice President and General Manager of the Defense and Government Systems Division (DGSD) at Hughes Network Systems. He has more than 25 years of experience with COTS and full military communications and intelligence programs. He earned both a Bachelor and Master of Science Degree in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois, Urbana, and is a member of Eta Kappa Nu, Tau Beta Pi, TEC, IEEE, AFCEA, AUSA, AAAA, AUVSI, and the Society of Satellite Professionals International (SSPI). Lober holds a patent on cellular communications for emergency response.

Dr. Rajeev Gopal is Vice President, Advanced Systems at Hughes Defense and Government Systems. In more than 25 years at Hughes, Dr. Gopal has held a variety of leadership roles in satellite network systems engineering and software development; most recently, he has focused on AI/ML, software-defined networking, 5G, and enterprise management architectures. Prior to joining Hughes, Dr. Gopal led automation projects for clinical and cancer research and development at CTIS. Dr. Gopal earned a Ph.D. in computer science from Vanderbilt University (Nashville, Tennessee) and a bachelor of engineering degree in electrical engineering from the Birla Institute of Technology & Science (BITS) in Pilani, India.

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