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The United States will increase spending on classified communications satellites

The largest increase in funding is for the Evolved Strategic Satcom satellites, intended for nuclear command and control.

WASHINGTON – The US Space Force plans to request nearly $8 billion over the next five years to expand the development of classified communications satellite networks, according to Department of Defense budget documents.

The projected funding is for two geostationary orbit constellations: one for military tactical communications and one for strategic communications to connect nuclear forces with national command authorities.

The largest funding increase is for the Evolved Strategic Satcom, or ESS, program. The Space Force plans to spend more than $5 billion from 2023 through 2027 to continue development of three proposed satellite payload and ground system concepts. Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. The companies are expected to complete prototype designs by 2025.

The Space Force wants to keep three contractors on the program for now to ensure it has a diversity of vendors, according to budget documents. The next round of contracts is expected to be awarded in 2025.

ESS satellites and ground systems are intended for nuclear command control and communications. This is the highly classified architecture that allows the national command authority — the chain of command that runs from the president to the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the US Strategic Command — to communicate with strategic bombers, ballistic submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles scattered throughout the United States.

The Space Force is funding a separate constellation for military tactical communications. It plans to spend about $2.5 billion over the next five years to continue development of the PrProtected Tactical Satcom, or PTS, satellites and a ground system called Protected Tactical Business Service, or PTES.

Boeing and Northrop Grumman are developing the PTS payloads and Boeing is also the PTES premium contractor. Both companies are expected to launch prototype payloads in 2024 for in-orbit demonstrations.

The ESS and PTS satellite networks, if all goes according to plan, will increase the current advanced extremely high frequency (AEHF) satellites, manufactured by Lockheed Martin.

The US Air Force started the PTS program in 2018 in an effort to make military forces less reliant on AEHF satellites, which are intended to be used for the most sensitive classified communications.

The sixth and last AEHF satellite was released in March 2020.

The ESS satellites will have new features, such as enhanced cybersecurity and polar coverage. AEHF is a mid-latitude system, so the US military currently relies on Enhanced Polar System satellites to extend the AEHF satellite communications network over the north polar region.