Satellite system won't see space anytime soon

Navy next-gen program encounters more delays, prompting a look at alternate plan

Delays plaguing the Navy’s Mobile User Objective Satellite program have yet to end, with one DOD official confirming the initial launch has been pushed back yet again to late 2011.

“Hopefully, in the next two years we will be able to replace the [current ultra-high frequency satellite] constellation,” Navy Capt. Jim Hirst, deputy commander, Space Field Activity, Space and Naval Systems Command, said April 15 at the AFCEA Naval IT Day in Vienna, Va. “We’re focusing on launching in late ’11, with on-orbit capability in 2012.”

With MUOS years behind schedule, the Navy is looking to the commercial sector to bridge the gap between the expiration of the current ultra-high frequency follow-on satellites and the yet-to-be-launched MUOS satellites. Naval officials are also asking Congress to consider yielding some government-only UHF bandwidth to commercial operators to help ease the transition.

The existing satellites provide critical capabilities for all four military branches, including communications, navigation and geo-location used for precision weapons. But they are aging and obsolete, and narrowband capabilities – which are said to be at the root of at least some of the delays – will degrade below the required level of availability by January 2011 if no interim measures are taken, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The degraded narrowband communications could result in outages on the ground that would slice into the operations of soldiers, sailors, Marine and airmen around the world.

Vice Adm. David Dorsett, deputy chief of naval operations for information dominance and director of Naval Intelligence, told Congress in March that without mitigations, the outdated satellites would put “the entire joint force at a level of risk that, frankly, would not be appropriate.”

“Looking at a commercially hosted payload is the right approach,” Dorsett said at a March 10 hearing at the Senate Armed Forces Committee’s Subcommittee on Strategic Forces. “It reduces the risk we would otherwise have. Last year, we made a decision that we could afford more risk. With the additional delay of MUOS, we made a decision that no longer could afford that risk.” Dorsett added that opening up UHF spectrum reserved for the government should be “part of the calculation.”

As designed, MUOS will increase communications capacity tenfold, according to Bill Meister, MUOS program manager for General Dynamics C4 Systems. The older systems only supported voice communications, but MUOS will enable both voice and data, as well as mobile communications with hand-held terminals, unmanned aerial vehicles, aircraft and remote sensors.

“This acts like a pipe from the soldier to the Global Information Grid,” Meister said. With MUOS, data can get “virtually from the foxhole to the Pentagon.”

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.

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