Simon Kershaw

Commercial satcom remains vital to military

DOD's next-generation space systems alone cannot meet projected requirements for wideband communications

Now more than ever before, the military’s use of commercial satellite communications plays a vital role in the military satellite communications architecture as defense departments looks to more efficiently manage resources. With today’s fiscal environment of constrained military budgets and reduced spending, as well more complex missions and a need for more demanding applications, defense planners are giving unprecedented consideration to commercial satellite communications, and with good reason.

Designing, building, launching, and maintaining satellites is an expensive undertaking, and the Defense Department has long had difficulties in developing and delivering space systems on time and within budget.


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Overall, the commercial satellite sector delivers satellites faster than DOD while most of DOD’s space acquisition programs have resulted in billions of dollars of cost and schedule overruns, and been fraught with technical and design problems.

DOD’s demand for long-haul, wideband global military communications has grown exponentially in the last 10 years with the capacity provided by DOD assets falling woefully short of demand.

It's no surprise that many of the new military satellite communications systems that DOD is deploying and planning are adopting commercial business practices and technologies to improve cost, schedule and performance.

Commercial satellite communications providers are seeing a trend towards new defense acquisition strategies, where a larger share of the program risk is taken by industry balanced with a different shape of contract -- typically with a longer-term service engagement. The United Kingdom’s Defence Ministry pursued this strategy in 2008 when it took delivery of the Skynet-5 fleet of military satellite communications satellites, which now serve more than a dozen DOD and allied customers.

Another issue that plagues governmental users of DOD assets is prioritization, where a surge in military usage may override other government departments' requirements. Here again commercial satellite communications assets in X-band (SHF) have been providing interoperability to cost effectively accommodate re-allocated traffic.

The First Gulf War accelerated DOD’s use of commercial satellite communications services and this trend continues to the present day with Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Commercial Satcom has the flexibility to respond effectively in contingency operations, when demand for bandwidth surges beyond routine operations.

Current Milsatcom architecture consists of UHF, SHF and EHF frequency spectrums. The Navy, DOD’s largest consumer of commercial satellite communications services, continues to lease supplemental SHF and UHF resources from the Astrium Services subsidiary Paradigm, bridging the gap between requirements and capabilities.

“Technical advances in the commercial sector can provide opportunities for rapid capability implementation, and are potential game-changers in the National Security Space Strategy,” Vice Adm. David Dorsett, deputy chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance, and Gary Federici, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Information Operations and Space, jointly testified in April 2010 before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

X-band also is used in the naval environment and in certain climatic-zone and high-latitude regions where high frequency bands are far less efficient and more susceptible to day-to-day signal fade. Astrium Services is leading the way with commercial initiatives for military satellite communications. One such example is the hosted X-band payload on Telesat's ANIK-G1 satellite that launches this year and will provide valuable commercial X-band capacity and anchoring services over the continental United States and the Pacific Ocean Region.

According to a study by Northern Sky Research, DOD by as early as 2014 should have close to 30 Gbps of capacity based on its next-generation satellite program deployments as developments around the globe continue to put strains on internal capabilities, the need for commercial capacity would appear to continue unabated, if only to achieve some sort of flexibility for military bandwidth planners.

The bottom line is that DOD can't meet ever-growing satellite communications bandwidth requirements with its own organic assets. Whether used for routine day-to-day communications or to meet contingency operations, commercial satellite communications provide warfighters with a service that is critical to mission success at every level of military operations: strategic, operational and tactical. Therefore, the partnership between the military and commercial satellite communications providers is one of necessity, not luxury.

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