A new report from the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies recommends that the Pentagon require the hardening of the Space Development Agency’s envisioned Transport Layer satellites, which are to be the backbone of the Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) architecture.

“Obviously, shooting down a B-21 or sinking an [aircraft] carrier would be a very bad day for the United States, but taking out these [space] nodes would be debilitating,” said Tim Ryan, a senior fellow at the Mitchell Institute and the author of the new study, The Indispensable Domain: the Critical Role of Space in JADC2. “As I did my research, I could not find a Transport Layer backup system. The sensor nodes on orbit and the space Transport Layer must be hardened, be deployed in a proliferated networked system, and undertake system resiliency measures to include rapid reconstitution. Mission assurance will be the main objective.”

In May last year, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin approved DoD’s JADC2 strategy, which aims to bring in joint technologies, ranging from artificial intelligence to new advanced computing tools, to build a cross-service digital architecture for future multi-domain operations (Defense Daily, June 4, 2021). SDA’s Transport Layer–part of the future National Defense Space Architecture (NDSA)–is to provide resilient, high volume, minimal lag time communications for military missions.

In February, SDA announced nearly $1.8 billion in awards to Lockheed Martin [LMT], Northrop Grumman [NOC], and York Space Systems for 126 prototype satellites for the NDSA’s Tranche 1 Transport Layer–the SDA’s first stab at fielding operational satellites to provide resilient, high volume, minimal lag time communications for military missions (Defense Daily, Feb. 28). Each contractor is to build 42 satellites to be ready for launch by September 2024. Lockheed Martin won $700 million, Northrop Grumman $692 million, and York Space Systems won $382 million.

The 126 Tranche 1 Transport Layer satellites are to use Ka-band radio frequency up and downlinks, optical up and downlinks, and existing L-band radios with Link 16 for the transmission of time sensitive targeting data to U.S. forces in the field.

While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “required collaboration between sensors and weapons, they only really needed to be able to extend the battlespace around 150 kilometers beyond the Forward Edge of the Battle Area,” per the new Mitchell Institute report. “Consequently, the communications networks developed to support these operations were designed with geographically limited requirements in mind. For example, the range limitation of the venerated Link 16 network that connects different sensors and shooters together is only about 300 nautical miles. It is over 5,000 nautical miles from Hawaii to mainland China, or 16 daisy-chained Link-16 networks. While current tactical datalinks will remain useful, U.S. information age combat forces require enterprise solutions built at scale. Current systems band-aided together reduce speed, are fragile, and are susceptible to enemy interference. Space-based capabilities are critical to achieving this necessary global scale of operations—it cannot be achieved through terrestrial means.”

The report said that DoD’s small number of communications satellites is a problem. Military communications constellations include the Boeing [BA] Wideband Global SATCOM and Ultra High Frequency Follow-On (UFO) satellites, the Lockheed Martin [LMT] Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites and the Defense Satellite Communications System, the Lockheed Martin-Boeing-Northrop Grumman [NOC] Military Strategic Tactical Relay (Milstar) satellites, and the Lockheed Martin-General Dynamics [GD] Mobile User Objective System.

“Most current SATCOM systems were driven by legacy requirements and designs that date back to the Cold War,” the study said. “Efficiency and increased capability were prioritized ahead of resilience. Systems were designed to fulfill specific requirements with little consideration for the enterprise-wide architecture required for a concept as broad-reaching as JADC2. It is one thing to connect a few dozen users in real-time and quite another to connect thousands. As a result, core military satellite communications today span just 36 satellites. Reliance on such a small number of nodes presents a network vulnerability where the loss of just a few platforms could result in critical failure of the system. Adversaries with deep magazines of counterspace weapons could readily exploit this weakness in a conflict.”