The Air Force is sticking with longtime contractor LinQuest Corp. for engineering support of its communications satellites, even as the Pentagon considers radical changes to its space architecture.
LinQuest doesn’t build the satellites themselves, but under the $562 million, seven-and-a-half year contract, the company provides engineering, integration and solution support for satellite systems and architecture. LinQuest was one of two companies to submit bids for the contract.
“We provide a model-based systems engineering capability and integration to assist the government from everything from the very start of a program [...] to operations, monitoring operations and then we have sustainment,” said Chris Beres, general manager of the space systems engineering and integration group at LinQuest. “That is all, if you will, womb to tomb, part of the scope of this [MILSATCOM] contract.”
“This capability [helps the Air Force] assess and balance their investments, and how they inform their decisions with data that we provide. They can do portfolio optimization, course of actions, analysis of alternatives, what ifs, [...] so they can figure out where they spend the next dollar, how they are going to set up their architecture,” he added.
The MILSATCOM contract covers support for both the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite system, which provides secure, anti-jamming communications for the military and the Wideband Global SATCOM system, as well as the AEHF sister program covering the Arctic, the Enhanced Polar System.
Beres said the new contract does not differ significantly from the services LinQuest was already providing. However, it comes at a time when the Pentagon is restructuring its space organization and rethinking its approach to the national security space architecture. Most notably, the Trump administration is working to establish a sixth branch of the military dubbed the Space Force that would take over many of the Air Force’s space-related activities. Less discussed but just as notable, the Air Force has begun restructuring its primary space acquisition arm, the Space and Missile Systems Center, and the Pentagon has established the Space Development Agency to design a new architecture for national security space satellites.
A notional space architecture released by the Space Development Agency envisioned a mesh network of satellites based within a commercial constellation in low earth orbit, with each satellite hosting multiple Department of Defense payloads. The network would encompass several layers of satellites, with each layer serving one or more of the Pentagon’s space-related functions. By spreading out those payloads over multiple smaller, cheaper satellites instead of putting up a handful of large, exquisite satellites that host a single payload, the SDA hopes to both save money and create a more resilient system where the loss of one satellite is less problematic.
It’s not clear at this point whether this new mesh network would absorb MILSATCOM programs if adopted, but the principles and capabilities behind SDA’s vision are also informing the next generation of military communications satellites that LinQuest will help develop under the new contract.
A major focus of the next-generation satellites is ensuring resilience through “diversification and disaggregation and proliferation,” said Beres. That can be seen in the follow-on satellites being developed to replace AEHF. There will ultimately be six AEHF satellites, the fifth of which is slated to be launched into orbit in August. The next-generation version will split into two, with one payload supporting strategic missions and a second payload supporting tactical missions. By disaggregating systems like this, the cost of losing a single satellite is partly mitigated and communications are made more resilient.