Although military’s narrowband satellite communications network has been in orbit for over four years, users are still unable to take advantage of its entire range of modern capabilities. According to a new assessment from Government Accountability Office (GAO), they must rely on overburdened older capabilities. This federal watchdog monitors the growth of Defense Department systems and capabilities on a regular basis. The Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) is a narrowband SATCOM program made and administered by the United States Navy, according to the report released on September 2.
MUOS is the newest narrowband SATCOM system of the military, comprised of 4 active satellites and just one spare in the geosynchronous orbit. It will supplement and eventually replace the Navy’s Fleet Satellite and Ultra High-Frequency Follow-On system. Narrowband SATCOM operates at frequencies ranging from 300 MHz to about 3 GHz, allowing for more safe communications which are less susceptible to weather or tough terrain. Every MUOS spacecraft has two payloads: one that is compatible with the existing narrowband capacities and another that can deliver enhanced capabilities like higher communications capacity, less signal interference, and improved connection. “A 10-fold improvement in total communications capability over legacy UHF capabilities,” according to MUOS.
According to the GAO, the satellite constellation has already been in place for several years, but work on the ground has been far slower. The research stated that a fragmented acquisition procedure had hampered the distribution of the user equipment, with every service responsible for purchasing its equipment. According to officials, this made it impossible to time the deployment of terminals with the growth of space segments. The Joint Chiefs of Staff established a Narrowband Network Transition Plan Working Group in the year 2020 to tackle the issue.
However, there has been an over-reliance on outdated capabilities because of the delays in getting MUOS-ready terminals to market. According to the GAO, a Navy review from 2019 found that customers oversubscribe to accessible UHF channels. The Space Command officials acknowledged that some users forego asking UHF services because they assume there isn’t any. The shift from the UHF SATCOM networks to the MUOS networks has also been delayed due to the lack of proper planning. According to the report, the Department of Defense did not begin developing a network transition strategy until 2020, 6 years after it first recognized the need for one.
The reality that upcoming MUOS satellites will not support older networks further complicates the transfer. While the latest batch of MUOS satellites is built to operate with the UHF SATCOM as services and the joint forces shift to the future system, sustainment spacecraft are being constructed as if the transition is done. A gateway built by Defense Information Systems Agency, that is going to translate communications between UHF SATCOM and MUOS, is one possible answer. Users who don’t want to switch to MUOS networks will be able to communicate as usual, albeit the patch won’t be able to solve the complete oversubscription problem, according to GAO. The fact that prospective MUOS satellites have been delayed may also alleviate some of the pressure to convert.