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New encryption tool seen as key to LEO proliferation

US airmen assemble a SATCOM Earth Terminal Subsystem (SETSS). (US Air Force)

A new, space-based cryptologic tool developed by Northrop Grumman could be crucial to unlocking satellite communications (satcom)-based networking between sensor and shooter platforms at low Earth orbit (LEO) for US armed forces, a senior company official told Janes.

The Space End Crypto Unit (ECU) prototype, as designed, will be a multi-algorithm-based encryption device capable of supporting secure communication across multiple waveforms and datalinks via a single computer chip.

The prototype ECU effort was part of the Other Transactional Authority (OTA) contract issued by the Pentagon's National Security Technology Accelerator (NSTXL), a public-private sector partnership designed to foster advanced technologies for the US Department of Defense.

L3 Harris, along with Northrop Grumman, was also awarded an OTA development contract by NSTXL to develop their own ECU prototype last July.

“This prototype aerospace vehicle equipment will enable cryptographic networking in proliferated low Earth orbit space systems and is expected to meet design standards necessary for inclusion on a demonstration spacecraft,” according to the public OTA solicitation for the ECU prototype.

Northrop Grumman's development of the ECU prototype leaned heavily on the company's existing work on cryptologic capabilities and other lessons learned from its software-defined radio (SDR) product lines.

“We're mixing what we've done successfully with the software-defined radio world and bringing into the crypto world,” Kevin Berkowitz, director of network solutions at Northrop Grumman, said.

“What we're looking to do through [the programme] ... is to take that open, resilient, secure capability that we provide in our software-defined radios [and] gateways and apply that through a single-chip crypto solution that has a couple [of] unique and distinct features,” he told Janes.

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