Keith Norton


Commercial Satcom remains vital to military ops

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

Now more than ever before, the military’s use of commercial satellite communications (Satcom) plays a vital role in the military Satcom (MilSatcom) architecture as the Defense Department looks to more efficiently manage its resources. With today’s fiscal environment of constrained military budgets and reduced spending, defense planners are giving unprecedented consideration to commercial Satcom, and with good reason.

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

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Therefore, it's no surprise that many of the new Milsatcom systems that DOD is deploying and planning are adopting commercial business practices and technologies to improve cost, schedule, and performance. Overall, the commercial satellite sector delivers satellites faster than DOD and typically in cost estimates, while most of DOD’s space acquisition programs have resulted in billions of dollars of cost and schedule overrun, and been fraught with technical and design problems.

Commercial Satcom services are readily available and provide a critical gap filler for DOD military communications satellites that don’t have enough capacity to support all of the Pentagon’s missions. The First Gulf War accelerated DOD’s use of commercial Satcom 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 estimates are that more than 80 percent of DOD’s satellite bandwidth is purchased from commercial Satcom companies. With increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets in theatre, as well as high-definition video, that bandwidth allocation is expected to very quickly grow to more than 90 percent.

UAVs, in particular, require long-distance, high bandwidth communications to fly the platforms and to receive live video imagery. Satcom provides the critical link to conduct this type of operation.

DOD’s demand for long-haul, wideband military communications has grown exponentially in the last 10 years with the capacity provided by DOD assets falling woefully short of demand. This gap will continue to be significant, making it necessary to continue to leverage commercial Satcom to fill these gaps in coverage and capacity by augmenting DOD-owned assets.

Current Milsatcom architecture consists of UHF, SHF, and EHF frequency spectrums. The Navy, DOD’s largest consumer of commercial Satcom services, continues to lease supplemental UHF resources from Paradigm Secure Communications, 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 C4I 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. Paradigm is leading the way with commercial initiatives for Milsatcom. One such example is the hosted X-band payload on Telesat's ANIK-G1 satellite that will provide valuable commercial X-band capacity and anchoring services over the continental United States and the Pacific Ocean Region.

Although DOD will grow capacity with planned next-generation space systems, capacity will remain substantially below the projected demand for wideband communications.

According to a study by Northern Sky Research (NSR), DOD by as early as 2014 should have close to 30 gigabytes per second of capacity based on its next-generation satellite program deployments. But according to NSR, “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 Satcom bandwidth requirements with its own organic assets. Whether used for routine day-to-day communications or to meet contingency operations, commercial Satcom provides 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 Satcom providers is one of necessity, not luxury.

About the Author

Keith Norton is president of Paradigm Secure Communications.

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