On the morning of June 24, an Atlas 5 rocket carrying the fifth and, for now, final satellite in the U.S. Navy’s next-generation mobile communications system launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Navy officials likened the capstonelaunch to the christening of a ship.

Part of the Navy’s Mobile User Objective System, or MUOS, the Lockheed Martin-built satellite had been expected to complete its climbto its geosynchronous perch by July 3.

But the Navy said July 8 the satellite experienced an “anomaly”on its way to GEO. As a result, it had “temporarily halted” a series of on board engine firings needed to boost MUOS-5 to an orbit about 36,000 kilometers above the equator where it would undergo months of testing before becoming a spare for a constellation that’s still months away from beginning its intended mission.

Nothing has come easy for the Navy when it comes to MUOS. Even if the Defense Department is able to wrestle MUOS-5 into its operational orbit, the broader program still must over come several hurdles to reach its full promise to provide smartphone-like communications to military users in hard-to-reach places.

Among the remaining obstacles: a legal challenge preventing the operation of a MUOS ground station in Italy, a new digital payload that’s awaiting certification from the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester and the limited availability of back-pack sized and vehicle-mounted terminals that can take advantage of the new MUOS waveform.

The MUOS system includes four ground stations, each featuring three 19-meter antennas, four satellites,each about twice the size of a school bus, and the on-orbit spare that launched June 24. The system is designed to stream text, images and video to mobile forces at rates 10 times faster than the legacy Ultra-High Frequency Follow-On satellites, the 23-year-old system MUOS is replacing.

Now, the Defense Department is trying to ensure it can get the most out of the MUOS program, which is slated to offer more troops and their commanders the type of smartphone-like services coveted by special operations in hard-to-reach trouble spots — urban canyons, mountains and valleys, forests and jungles.

The Navy’s next-generation narrowband communications system consists of five satellites, including an on-orbit spare, pictured left at Lockheed Martin’s factory in Sunnyvale, California. The constellation could be operational early in 2017, but the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester needs to sign off on a new payload that provides smartphone-like capabilities to users in hard-to-reach locales. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The Navy’s next-generation narrowband communications system consists of five satellites, including an on-orbit spare, pictured left at Lockheed Martin’s factory in Sunnyvale, California. The constellation could be operational early in 2017, but the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester needs to sign off on a new payload that provides smartphone-like capabilities to users in hard-to-reach locales. Credit: Lockheed Martin

The path to operational capability

Most immediately, the U.S. government is hoping to finally put to rest a series of legal challenges to a MUOS ground station in Niscemi, Italy. For nearly a decade, protesters in the Sicilian town of about 30,000 have challenged the Italian government’s approval for the site, occasionally blocking construction materials as they arrived and arranging sit-ins. They claim harmful electromagnetic radiation might be emitted from the ground station, which is located in the middle of a nature preserve. The Navy argues the radiation is within safe limits, but the protesters haven’t given up, going from demonstrating in the street to tying up the project in the courts. In 2014 an Italian judge ordered construction at the site to stop. Since then, courts have reversed the decision and allowed the Navy to complete the ground station at Niscemi, which was operational for a time. But the success was short-lived. The site had to shut down in 2015 due to another stay from Italian courts.

Navy officials hope the ground station can reopen later this summer following an upcoming court date. Without four operational ground stations, it is harder for MUOS to provide optimal worldwide coverage to its users, Navy leaders said.

The first two MUOS satellites launched in February 2012 and July 2013. The third launched in January 2015 and the fourth in September 2015. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, California is the program’s prime contractor.

The Defense Department has yet to complete testing on a digital payload aboard the MUOS satellites known as the Wideband Code Division Multiple Access, or WCDMA.
Like the Navy’s 11 UHF Follow On satellites, the MUOS satellites are equipped with a UHF-band narrowband payload to provide links to ships at sea and to mobile ground forces operating in hard-to-reach areas such as beneath dense forest canopies. But MUOS also introduces a new capability akin to smartphones via WCDMA.

To date, only the UHF payloads aboard the MUOS satellites have been utilized, a situation that is not expected to change until at least the end of the year. That means the MUOS satellites have essentially been operating as legacy satellites as Navy officials worked to ensure the digital payload technology, currently in test and evaluation mode, is mature. The Government Accountability Office said the MUOS program carries a price tag of about $7.7 billion.

However, Navy and industry officials are optimistic about MUOS’s capabilities and say the WCDMA payload has performed well in a series of taxing demonstrations the last three years. Those tests include transmitting secure voice, data and communications throughout the North Pole and over new antennas on Navy submarines.

The demonstrations also involved the ability to talk, text and share data during an exercise in the Pacific last year. The Pentagon’s chief weapon tester, J. Michael Gilmore, is expected to sign off on the satellites around the end of 2016 or the beginning of 2017.

“We are continuing to focus efforts on transitioning to the WCDMA capability of MUOS,” said Jarratt Mowery, director of the Navy’s end-to-end system integration. “The system first demonstrated WCDMA voice and data calls via the Army’s Manpack radios in 2013, and we’ve since conducted testing and training with each of the various service branches.”

The program also continues to face long-standing questions about how many MUOS-equipped terminals will be available to send into the field once the constellation is declared operational.

MUOS has “encountered significant delays with the delivery of user equipment,” the GAO said in a March 2016 report to Congress. The Army, which is handling the procurement of MUOS terminals, has delivered 5,326 manpack radios as part of low-rate initial production for soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. For comparison, more than 67,000 terminals are equipped to handle the legacy narrowband satellites.

The Navy is counting on an Italian court decision to put a Siicilian ground station back in service, making it easier for MUOS to provide worldwide coverage. A large satellite dish is shown above coming together at a MUOS site in Hawaii. Credit: U.S. Navy

The Navy is counting on an Italian court decision to put a Siicilian ground station back in service, making it easier for MUOS to provide worldwide coverage. A large satellite dish is shown above coming together at a MUOS site in Hawaii. Credit: U.S. Navy

“Utilization of over 90 percent of MUOS’s planned capability is dependent on the development of the MUOS waveform … and porting the MUOS capability onto operational user terminals,” the GAO said in separate 2014 report.

The Pentagon has approved the Army’s purchase of as many as 60,000 MUOS-equipped radios beginning next summer as part of a five-year, indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract with multiple vendors, including General Dynamics, Harris Corp., and Rockwell Collins.

Three commercial radios are currently in testing, according to Capt. Joe Kan, program manager for the Navy’s communications satellite program office. The Navy told Congress in 2014 that about 12,000 MUOS compatible terminals are expected to be in the field by 2018 or 2019. By 2025, about 53,000 terminals will be online.

Another generation of MUOS

Predictably, as the MUOS satellite production line wound down leading up to the completion of MUOS-5, questions about how the Pentagon would follow the fifth satellite intensified.

Formally, the Defense Department is expected to begin an Analysis of Alternatives on its narrowband needs in 2018, Kan said. That study will help shape the next “next-generation” narrowband communications capability.

But discussions are already underway between Lockheed Martin, Pentagon officials, and U.S. allies. about building at least one more MUOS satellite. For more than a year, a consortium of U.S. allies, led by Canada, has been working on an agreement to build a sixth MUOS satellite in exchange for access to the full constellation. Such an arrangement would be a similar approach to what the Defense Department has used with partners on the Wideband Global Satcom satellites.

DoD officials have said Canada, Australia, Japan and the United Kingdom, have expressed interest in partnering with the United States on future communications satellites.

“They would all like to go ahead and be a part of MUOS,” Doug Loverro, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said this spring. “There is a dollar problem, but in general they all know they’re going to need [satellite communications].”

At the MilSatCom conference outside Washington last month, Canadian officials said they are looking to buy into an existing communications constellation, possibly MUOS, to bolster coverage near the arctic region.

That decision is expected for May 2017.