Nothing new under the sun, indeed.
Recent and planned military satellite launches by 10-year-old United Launch Alliance and New Space comer SpaceX aim to keep the nation on top of its communications game. But there’s another national security constellation still in active use — Milstar, or the Military and Tactical Relay system.
Milstar sats and their next-gen kin have a combined 100 years of successful operation, providing the Armed Forces with reliable and jam-resistant global communications. The worldwide protected network dates from an initial satellite launched on a Titan IV rocket in 1994.
Five of six Milstar satellites launched through 2003 remain in operation. In 2010, the military launched a next-gen satellite for Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications, expanding on Milstar’s coverage and allowing for connections several times faster.
Two blue-chip space companies work with the Military Satellite Communications Systems Directorate on AEHF operations: Lockheed Martin acts as the primary contractor for the program, and Northrop Grumman Aerospace is its payload provider.
“Protected communications means more than encryption and authentication,” said Iris Bombelyn, VP connected communications at Lockheed Martin. “These systems must be the communications channel that stands when all others fail.”
The AEHF system sats are designed to insulate communications from jamming by eliminating ground relay stations, instead using on-board signal processing and radio frequency crosslinks.
“We are proud to provide this most crucial communications capability for our nation’s leadership and warfighters,” said Tim Frei, vice president of communications systems at Northrop Grumman Aerospace. “We are committed to advancing this capability into the future to stay ahead of the evolving threats.”
The AEHF system achieved initial operational capability in July 2015 and is being operated by the U.S. Air Force’s 4th Space Operations Squadron. The next AEHF satellite is scheduled to launch in 2017, and another two sats set to join the constellation eventually are in production at Lockheed Martin in Sunnyvale, Calif.