Op-ed | Paving a clear “Path” to interoperable SATCOM

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It’s time to allow trusted commercial operators to help government benefit from improved satellite operations

These are times when the only thing we can predict is unpredictability. From geopolitical threats to natural disasters – events emerge swiftly and unexpectedly, anywhere around the globe.

This event-driven reality provides an even more insistent imperative that U.S. government and military users must stand ready to deploy “anytime, anywhere.” They must have access to resilient, robust and secure satellite communications (SATCOM) wherever they are, at a moment’s notice, across the full spectrum of engagement. And, of course, this must be tempered with real expectations of cost-effectiveness and enhanced combat readiness delivered with agility.

There is a path to this state of SATCOM and, in fact, it exists. But, as with a lost hiker in the woods, the path is not quite clear to federal agency procurement officials or acquisition authorities. Following this analogy, for the hiker, fallen branches and other debris can block or hide the path, or a storm may wash away parts of it. Or perhaps, the painted markings on trees designating the trail suddenly stop appearing, and hikers find themselves lost.

Historically, the government has perceived commercial SATCOM (COMSATCOM) as a gap filler, or simply a surge service to fill in for unavailable military capabilities. And yet, even in the U.S., approximately 73 percent of all SATCOM is provided by commercial providers, as reported by the Army’s own Wideband Consolidated SATCOM System Expert just last year. Other allied and coalition nations have similar or even greater percentages of COMSATCOM use. So it is not surprising that governments have become increasingly reliant on COMSATCOM to support ongoing critical military operations and responses to catastrophes. With military and defense operations in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, there remains a state of highly mobile, asymmetrical engagement. Coupled with the ever-advancing technological innovation in the SATCOM industry, we continue to see a surge in the use of, and even greater dependence upon, COMSATCOM.

For federal users, however, the path to optimal SATCOM has been muddled by piecemeal and antiquated military procurement practices, further complicated by budget and cultural impediments.

The “debris” of the government acquisition system means that multiple U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) branches are responsible for multiple parts of the package, turning to private industry generally on an “as needed” basis. The Navy supplies narrowband space segment, or Mobile User Objective System (MUOS). The Air Force supplies the wideband “space” part, i.e., the Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) – originally as a Wideband Gapfiller Satellite system. The Army provides the “land” part, i.e., both military-owned and commercial terminals for units, while the Defense Information Systems Agency is the storefront for commercial SATCOM. In each case, despite the maturity of commercial communications, there remains a disconnect where the focus is on use of spectrum: leasing MHz versus looking at the more relevant effects that SATCOM enables and leveraging SATCOM as a Service as a force multiplier, critical infrastructure and thus an operational imperative.

The fragmentation and overlap in space acquisition management and oversight have contributed to program delays and cancellations, cost increases and inefficient operations, with the terminal segment lagging far behind. Most of those programs began before some of today’s concepts of operations – such as airborne Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) – were even envisioned. As a result, there are programs like MUOS where only the legacy UHF capability is accessible. And even the wideband workhorse for the U.S. government and its allies, the WGS system with its nine satellites on orbit, cannot flexibly meet all operational requirements. What’s more, in some geographies, there is often competing demand for WGS access for military mission-specific priorities.

Bottom line, this all brings a burden to the end user, who is not getting the needed mission-critical capability quickly and effectively.

At the “pointy end of the spear” or in the foxhole, users do not care about which branch of the military “owns” which part of the communication architecture, or whether the actual technology is supplied by a government or commercial provider. They only want results, in the form of maximum capability, flexibility and resilience. Simplicity is required, and SATCOM needs to be readily accessible wherever they go, with smaller, easy-to-use equipment and multiband, multimode terminals to ensure connectivity is fully mission capable regardless of how challenging the situational or geographic conditions, or priority of the mission.

This speaks to the urgency for a more agile, unified strategy to ensure the availability of reliable, resilient and seamless state-of-the-art SATCOM capabilities, which are fully interoperable with agency-owned systems. Taking an entirely integrated architecture approach that considers military SATCOM (MILSATCOM) and COMSATCOM as a holistic capability and that allows for rapid and cost-effective innovation relevant to government’s ever-changing needs, this strategy would inspire “order-of-magnitude” improvements in SATCOM capabilities.

Fortunately, while still obscured, the path for the government is getting clearer, as events over the past year and beyond have demonstrated.

Moving forward

We have witnessed 2017 bringing significant developments as the commercial sector and government leaders have worked together to create a more protected and resilient space environment that will improve capabilities for our servicemen and women. Throughout this collaboration, greater support has emerged for the development of an integrated SATCOM architecture and strategy in the interest of rapid and cost-effective innovation and greater resilience and frequency diversity.

The official launch in January 2017 of a wideband Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) stands as a promising example of this trend. Through the AoA, leadership intends to build the next generation of infrastructure for the future wideband communication system to replace the dated WGS program. Currently underway, it provides an opportunity to define, arguably for the first time, a new approach that harnesses the scale, scope and innovation of COMSATCOM. A Commercial Working Group has formed to gather perspectives and input from industry leaders about the best ways to move forward. Our top executives work with their government counterparts to develop a “blueprint” to take the best of what industry has to offer – space, air and ground layer communication capabilities and ongoing innovations – and seamlessly integrate these capabilities into the future DoD architecture.

Furthermore, the Fiscal Year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which has been passed by both the House and the Senate and sent to the president’s desk for signature, marks the first step toward a crucial space reorganization and leadership shift presenting a clear opportunity for COMSATCOM to become an integral part of the SATCOM architecture.

When we look at these developments as a collective whole, we can see that government leadership clearly recognizes that the desired integrated architecture depends upon the reach, resilience and technology modernization of COMSATCOM, as an essential element of mission assurance. Importantly, this is supported by evolving policies and a strategy that drives satellite communication acquisition away from a piecemeal and antiquated procurement model.

Path found: SATCOM as a Service

All of these positive dynamics come together enabling government to opt for newer business models, such as SATCOM as a Service, a readily available capability that comprehensively addresses the aforementioned needs for interoperability, efficiency, ease of use and responsiveness to the DoD requirements. Mobile government users are increasingly adopting this managed service model, seeking access to rapid, reliable, worldwide SATCOM wideband capability. This contrasts with historicaly leased satellite services, which require setting up fixed systems, one-by-one, every time a new network is required. To do that, government contractors must set up their own hubs at ground stations throughout the world, wire together their own network and create their own systems. SATCOM as a Service is an end-to-end model that provides wideband/fixed satellite services globally without the time and expense of building and maintaining a private network.

From a user’s perspective, SATCOM as a Service establishes a mobile wideband experience that is no different from moving around the globe with a cellphone, without stopping to worry about where the cellphone towers are, who installed them and who wired everything together. SATCOM as a Service allows users to travel anywhere in the world with one-touch access. They never have to make a new investment whenever they set up a new SATCOM network – and it relieves the burden to manage these networks from end users, allowing them to fully focus on their mission.

SATCOM as a Service is a cost-efficient model in which users only pay to access the capability they need. A subscription or managed service, it delivers guaranteed data rates to satisfy mission needs at a moment’s notice, worldwide. With solid service-level agreements and committed information rates, users get what they ask for and only use it when they must, and the quality of the acquired service is assured. In other words, no more guessing games or overleasing and underleasing.

Rapid augmentation in narrowband

Industry brings new advancements in critical technologies, such as narrowband to support the high-throughput requirements of users. Inmarsat and its partners are deploying Wideband Streaming L-band (WiSL), an innovative connectivity service suited to specific government needs, further augmenting MILSATCOM resources and enhancing operations. It is a capability utilizing Inmarsat’s reliable, worldwide L-band space and ground network, with higher throughputs from miniature form factor antennas to meet high-demand ISR and Process, Exploitation, Dissemination (PED) needs. WiSL is now flying on aircrafts, rapidly transforming from an idea to a new capability: During recent demonstrations in multiple user scenarios, it delivered data rates as high as 10Mbps x 10Mbps, via micro antennas as small as a 13 centimeters. Using high-order modulation, the demonstrations revealed efficiencies up to 4.5 bits per hertz for cost-efficient bandwidth utilization.

In addition, L-band Tactical Satellite (L-TAC) stands as another example of technology innovation built to mobile users requirements. It is a highly resilient, “UHF-like” tactical narrowband satellite capability for robust, low-cost, beyond-line-of-sight mobile communications when UHF is not available for existing radios. Via tactical radios, which are either portable or installed in vehicles, helicopters, ships and other mobile platforms, users acquire UHF tactical functionality that is extremely suitable for beyond-line-of-sight, push-to-talk networks, through which users in various coverage areas share access to transmit a signal that can be heard by everyone else in the network (just like a telephone conference call). The service is also designed for point-to-point data communications between terminals in theater. L-TAC is made possible by narrow spot beams, with satellites supporting about 200 such beams. With this, L-TAC extends capability over the satellites when UHF capacity is absent. The result: low-risk, resilient and easy-to-use connectivity which is accessible regardless of the local infrastructure, weather or terrain.

Unified SATCOM architecture

So, like the hiker in the woods who navigates past the debris to discover a distinct, well-laid path, the government-industry partnership brings much promise to steer agencies to a state of ready and responsive deployment of the most efficient, affordable, capable and interoperable SATCOM. Through this path forward, government users will greatly benefit from a completely integrated SATCOM architecture in which trusted commercial operators lead real innovation, empowering the DoD to consider MILSATCOM and COMSATCOM as a holistic capability to best support military missions.

The path exists and is available – now. And it is our duty to work together as industry and government leaders to forge ahead on it in the interest of achieving critical objectives and supporting the men and women who have dedicated their lives to these critical missions.