WASHINGTON — As the Defense Innovation Unit works to demonstrate a space-based internet capability that could help the Pentagon achieve its vision for a connected battlespace, one of the organization’s biggest challenges has been navigating the military services’ disparate strategies for achieving it.
DIU is developing the Hybrid Space Architecture in partnership with the Space Force and the Air Force Research Laboratory to provide internet connectivity from space. The plan is to demonstrate the ability to use commercial satellites and communication systems to provide more bandwidth, security and flexibility to military and civil users.
The effort is closely linked to the Defense Department’s concept of Joint All-Domain Command and Control — a vision to connect military forces and their information sharing systems, regardless of whether they’re operating in the air, space, sea, land or cyber domains.
To realize that vision, the department needs a secure, reliable communications infrastructure that can quickly collect and distribute data, which the Hybrid Space Architecture is meant to provide. The technology is under design to link communication satellites across multiple orbits, fuse data from an array of sensors, and leverage cloud computing to securely process and disseminate information from space.
Pentagon leaders consider JADC2 the military’s top development priority and have recognized the importance of space-based connectivity in that work. However, with the services crafting separate plans, it can be difficult to align those strategies, according to DIU’s Rogan Shimmin.
Shimmin, DIU’s program manager for the effort, told C4ISRNET in an interview that despite the challenges that come with supporting a secure, hybrid communications infrastructure, the biggest hurdle has been getting buy-in from all services.
“It’s meant to be a joint exercise, but so far ... each of the branches has sort of gone off in their own direction, trying to figure out what that means,” he said. “So we’re trying to bring [together] a lot of those disparate organizations who’ve been working on their own strategies, their own use cases for this architecture.”
DIU’s role in the Hybrid Space Architecture project is to partner with commercial space firms to identify and integrate their capabilities into the network. Their work builds on several years of research within the Air Force Research Lab and force design work within the Space Force’s Space Warfighting Analysis Center. The Space Development Agency, which launched its first transport satellites in April, is also developing communication satellites that will be an early node within the broader hybrid network.
Shimmin said along with identifying commercial technology and working with nontraditional companies, DIU is in a unique position to connect the military services with technology that meets a common need.
“There’s almost nothing that only the Army will be able to use or only the Air Force will be able to use,” he said. “We are a joint organization. ... The whole point of bringing in commercial technology to the Department of Defense is that with a bit of creativity, you can find much better solutions than the traditional, bespoke, siloed production programs.”
The Air Force and Space Force are heavily involved in the program, but it’s the Army that has been developing terminals and radios that interface with the space architecture. Similarly, Shimmin said, the Navy has engaged with the DIU effort, but the service’s focus is on its own Project Overmatch, a largely secret effort to demonstrate JADC2 capabilities.
“Converging all those disparate efforts has been the biggest challenge,” he said.
Shimmin is hopeful that a slate of upcoming demonstrations will drive more investment from the Army and Navy.
In July 2022, DIU selected technology companies Aalyria, Atlas Space Operations, Enveil and Anduril to develop communication payloads for a satellite that will demonstrate the hybrid concept. In November, it chose SpiderOak Mission Systems, Amazon Web Services, Amazon’s Project Kuiper and Microsoft’s Azure Space to provide cybersecurity software and demonstrate the ability to link ground-based cloud capabilities with commercial communication satellites.
The program is eyeing a few potential demonstrations in the coming months, including one that will involve the Naval Research Laboratory’s tactical network modeling emulator. DIU wants to integrate its software-defined wide-area network, a virtual architecture that uses multiple data transport options to connect users, with the emulator for a proof-of-concept demonstration.
Shimmin said the Space Force’s Space Systems Command is funding the effort, and he expects the organization to award a contract modification soon to Aalyria, a software company whose Spacetime platform DIU is using for network coordination.
DIU is also planning test events with commercial satellite communications providers operating in multiple orbits to showcase cybersecurity features and dynamic routing, which provides a flexible, adaptable pathway for data transport. Shimmin said the details of those efforts are under discussion.
Once demonstrated, DIU and its partners want to move quickly to make initial software capabilities available to government users through Space Systems Command’s Commercial Space Office.
Shimmin said one of the program’s goals — along with leveraging commercial systems to provide a better space-based data-storage, processing and transport capability — is to make it easier for military users to buy the imagery and intelligence they need.
“That’s why we’re pushing towards these demonstrations,” he said. “The transition makes them available. The demonstration is just showing operators how enabling these technologies are so they can get into programs of record that are purchasing them.”
The National Reconnaissance Office and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency currently manage much of that process, but there’s been a push within the military services to have their own acquisition authority.
The Hybrid Space Architecture, Shimmin said, could tighten the military’s partnerships with commercial imagery and communications providers, allowing it to buy data on a case-by-case basis, with insight into where it originated and who processed it.
“It’s all attributable, which gives us a bit of verification, a bit of history — if there’s a flaw found in one of the products, we can prevent that from happening,” Shimmin said. “Also, it allows for micro-transactions to reimburse each of these providers when their products have been sued, which creates a commercial incentive for the better analytics to bubble to the top.”
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.