Budget pressures push Air Force to mull commercial satellite tracking

Intelsat HTS

As part of Defense Department efforts to leverage commercial satellite capabilities, the Air Force has awarded contracts to study the viability of using commercial operators to help track and command military satellites.

According to a draft solicitation released by Air Force Space Command in April, the commercial provisioning study is intended to determine whether its private-sector satellite operators can help operate the service’s satellite control network.

Intelsat General of Bethesda, Md., which received one of the 90-day study contracts, said in a statement released Oct. 22 that "the objective of this study to determine possible methods of transitioning this requirement to the commercial sector to achieve cost efficiencies in the new budgetary environment."

Intelsat said it is partnering with Braxton Technologies of Colorado Springs, Colo., on the study contract.

The Air Force Satellite Control Network currently controls government satellites with 15 ground-based tracking, telemetry and control antennas at seven locations. Those ground stations are operated by Air Force and contractor personnel.

As the cost of satellite operations soar along with bandwidth requirements, the Air Force and other services have been looking for ways to leverage commercial technologies and practices to reduce operating costs. Along with satellite tracking, the services have been talking with commercial satellite providers about supplying additional bandwidth capacity as digital operations increase bandwidth requirements.

Commercial providers like Intelsat and Braxton claim they have been able to drive down the cost of ground tracking antenna architectures to what they say is less than one-fifth of what it currently costs the Air Force to operate its satellite control network.

"We can offer a robust, secure network at a far greater capability, with extreme reliability at significantly less cost,” Frank Backes, CEO of Braxton Technologies, claimed in a statement.

The Air Force study will focus on how satellite tracking and command functions could be shifted to commercial operators over a two-to-five year period, Intelsat said.

About the Author

George Leopold is a contributing editor for Defense Systems and author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom."Connect with him on Twitter at @gleopold1.

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