Why DOD needs to consider commercial SATCOM
- By Rick Lober
- Feb 18, 2014
In today’s asymmetrical conflict zones, enemies excel at blending into the surrounding environment, whether on city streets or mountainous landscapes. Military leaders make important decisions based on the warfighter’s first-hand knowledge of the enemy and the in-theater environment. But soon, as the U.S. draws down its presence in Afghanistan, resulting in fewer boots on the ground, military leadership will have ever fewer pieces of data coming straight from the scene—making the Defense Department’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) programs ever more important.
For successful missions, military leaders need the constant flow of detailed information from theater, such as full-motion video from unmanned aerial systems. Yet despite the mission-critical need, defense officials are in a tough spot, knowing they can’t do it on their own in the current fiscal circumstances. While DOD has an approved budget, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 gives little breathing room and sequestration remains a looming possibility. Though there’s $63 billion in sequestration relief over two years, it is offset by decreases elsewhere. In all, officials need to cut $85 billion through waste reduction and other measures.
Cost-cutting challenges are not new in either the public or private sectors, and similar belt-tightening practices apply, with the most obvious being not to re-invent the wheel — by leveraging commercially available technologies and services to the maximum extent feasible. As a case in point, the Government Accountability Office has reported that costs have risen by 235 percent on DOD’s Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) program — a constellation of highly capable military communications satellites that were initially estimated to cost $1.2 billion, making the current total acquisition roughly $4.1 billion.
Despite the escalated costs, the first satellites in orbit under the program have been unable to carry the expected amount of bandwidth — which is essential for combatant commanders to effectively stay connected and control tactical forces no matter where they may be. Indeed, the forces rely on WGS for high-capacity connectivity to the Defense Information Systems Network. Complicating matters is that UASs already could take over 80 percent of the constellation’s bandwidth, and in the near future will grow substantially as ISR missions expand.
Enter the commercial satellite industry, which is on the cutting-edge of SATCOM advancements and can deliver substantial capacity at lower cost than what is available under the WGS program. The latest advanced systems provide significant cost savings through bandwidth-efficient capabilities, in particular employing Ka-band technologies that can transmit full-motion video, data and voice to the ground and back to commands from a variety of manned and unmanned aerial, maritime or land-based vehicles. New satellites can provide substantial capacity, in excess of 100 gigabits of data per second — and at affordable prices.
Beyond affordable satellite capacity, leading companies have demonstrated advanced rotary wing technologies, overcoming the challenges of transmitting data through rotor blades. The result is seamless transmissions with zero packet loss. Helicopters often have greater agility, allowing for new data sources that traditional UASs cannot access.
By partnering with the commercial satellite sector, the military can leverage the private sector’s continuing innovation to develop ever higher performance and bandwidth-efficient technologies and solutions, helping meet its expanding mission and shrinking budget challenges.
As DOD rethinks its investments, officials have charged the department with finding ways to successfully partner with industry. Frank Kendall, undersecretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, is helping DOD and industry work together to study how commercial technology meets far more complex requirements, such as protecting data links in UASs from cyberattacks. In 2013, he also challenged defense officials to work more closely with industry leaders to boost the supply of satellite bandwidth.
With fewer boots on the ground and dollars in DOD’s pockets, commercial SATCOM is critical to the department’s future.
Rick Lober is vice president and general manager of the defense and intelligence systems division at Hughes.