U.S. to ramp up spending on classified communications satellites

The largest funding increase is for Evolved Strategic Satcom satellites, intended for nuclear command and control

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Space Force plans to request nearly $8 billion over the next five years to scale up development of classified communications satellite networks, according to DoD budget documents.

The projected funding is for two geostationary orbit constellations: one for military tactical communications, and another for strategic communications to connect nuclear forces with national command authorities. 

The largest funding increase is for the Evolved Strategic Satcom, or ESS, program. The Space Force plans to spend more than $5 billion from 2023 through 2027 to continue the development of three proposed satellite payload and ground system concepts from Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. The companies are expected to complete prototype designs by 2025. 

The Space Force wants to keep three contractors in the program for the time being to ensure it has a diversity of suppliers, the budget documents said. The next round of contracts is expected to be awarded in 2025. 

The ESS satellites and ground systems are intended for nuclear command control and communications This is the highly classified architecture that enables the national command authority — the chain of command running from the president through the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the U.S. Strategic Command — to communicate with strategic bombers, ballistic submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles dispersed throughout the United States.

The Space Force is funding a separate constellation for military tactical communications. It plans to spend about $2.5 billion over the next five years to continue the development of the Protected Tactical Satcom, or PTS, satellites and a ground system called Protected Tactical Enterprise Service, or PTES. 

Boeing and Northrop Grumman are developing the PTS payloads and Boeing is also the PTES prime contractor. Both companies are expected to launch prototype payloads in 2024 for on-orbit demonstrations.

The ESS and PTS satellite networks, if all goes as planned, will augment the current Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites, made by Lockheed Martin. 

The U.S. Air Force started the PTS program in 2018 in an effort to make military forces are less dependent on AEHF satellites, which are meant to be used for the most sensitive classified communications.

The sixth and final AEHF satellite was launched in March 2020

ESS satellites will have new features, such as enhanced cybersecurity and polar coverage. AEHF is a mid-latitude system so the U.S. military today relies on the Enhanced Polar System satellites to extend the AEHF satcom network over the North polar region.

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