Op-ed | Include Commercial Options in DoD Satcom Architecture

by

In 2005, the United States had over 160,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Pentagon was ramping up remotely piloted vehicle operations over both war zones and military operational requirements filled government satellites to capacity. This led the Department of Defense to ask commercial companies like Intelsat General to help satisfy requirements for both operational data from unmanned aerial vehicles and for troops to stay in touch with families back home. The satellite industry delivered the needed bandwidth, with Intelsat going as far as moving one of its satellites halfway around the globe to provide coverage in Southwest Asia.

A decade later, with turmoil spreading around the globe, is the DoD better prepared to use space-based resources for global communications in a time of conflict? Is there a better linkage between commercial and government satellite and ground capabilities that promotes resilience and survivability and meets the expanding needs of the U.S. military in a complex world?

Not yet, but we anticipate they will be soon. In fiscal year 2016 or early fiscal 2017, the DoD will conduct an analysis of alternatives to determine the way forward for next-generation wideband communications. The study will review and recommend potential architectures for satellite communications, which we hope will consider disaggregating certain protected tactical communications, and whether the DoD should continue to own global constellations to meet its bandwidth needs, or look more to commercial operators to fill most or all of its wideband satellite demand.

There are many reasons why the department would be wise to consider getting out of the wideband satcom business. At a macro level it gets to resources, but beyond resources there are three specific tactical reasons that I would also like to discuss.

Resources. The U.S. government has more important things to do with precious dollars and manpower than duplicate what can be done better commercially. Many senior DoD leaders agree with this, including one who recently remarked that for the money the Air Force pays to sustain the Wideband Global Satcom constellation, the service could pay a commercial operator to both sustain and fly the satellites. Commercial satellite operators employ a small fraction of the staff the Air Force traditionally uses to fly and operate its satellites. In addition the service often trains operators only to see them move to different jobs a few years later, making the commercial model even more attractive. We understand the growing complexity of the space mission — let those in uniform go solve DoD issues and leave “building Ford trucks” to commercial companies.

We know the mission. Whether providing communications on the move, supporting disadvantaged users or mobility applications, commercial capability has grown extensively and will improve dramatically in the near term. We have been there from the beginning — the addition of a commercial Ku-band satcom data link on the Predator drone in 1994 radically changed how remotely piloted vehicles were used. Commercial satcom companies have been partnering with the U.S. government for over 25 years to do missions from the mundane to the highly sensitive. We know how it’s done across an array of mission sets.

Commercial satellite capability is advancing rapidly and will continue to do so. Commercial companies are buying satellites with digital payloads and enhanced anti-jam capabilities, with increased flexibility and frequency reuse. From spot and steerable beams to protected tactical waveforms, the sky is the limit for what commercial can do. And due to the commercial acquisition cycle, industry is innovating faster than the military can. Commercial companies launch new satellites several times a year, providing the U.S. government with numerous opportunities to add new capabilities or get hosted payloads into orbit with the latest technology.

Commercial companies are also at the forefront of developing “software-defined” spacecraft with systems than can be updated while in orbit. One example is Intelsat’s EpicNG platform, which will be putting unprecedented capacity into space, with unparalleled resilience capability. The U.S. government could build a comparable system, but relying on commercial, coupled with the ability to pre-commit to satellites before launch, enables the advantage of technical improvements with each launch of a new satellite — without having to wait for the next “program” or “upgrade.”

And these improvements are not just relegated to the space segment.

There are many upgraded, highly capable, mobile terminals for ground-based and airborne operations commercially available off the shelf. There is an explosion in innovative phased array and small form factor terminals, not just in response to the tactical needs of the DoD but for commercial broadband applications such as airline communications and the “Internet of Things.” The lines between commercial and military wideband requirements are blurring.

And like the U.S. government, commercial companies have a growing concern over cybersecurity and have invested appropriately to protect their space and ground networks. Banks, energy companies, retail networks and others who use commercial satellites are just as worried about data security as the government. Intelsat focused on network security long before our customers ever asked about it and has a security posture today that would rival any major network operator.

High-throughput satellites (HTS) will decrease costs. There has been a lot of coverage touting how commercial satcom is more expensive than government systems. We do not believe cost comparisons have been fairly represented. We believe that by using a more sound approach to acquiring commercial satcom (vs. single-year, spot-market purchases), and with realistic “fill” rates, the total ownership costs of commercial services would compare favorably. But historic comparisons will rapidly become irrelevant as HTS offerings will drive down pricing due to the dramatic increase in throughput. This, coupled with technology refresh, resilience and increasing capability, will make commercial capability the best value moving forward.

The best way to incorporate commercial capabilities into the DoD’s overall communications requirements is to partner with satellite operators in planning the next space architecture, because a lot has changed since the fight in Southwest Asia began. The upcoming analysis of alternatives study will set the path for the next decade, and commercial companies should be invited to participate. Bringing together the tactical experience of the DoD and commercial providers to improve and enhance the nation’s space capabilities is in the best interest of the U.S. government and the nation.

Kay Sears is president of Intelsat General Corp.