Op-ed | U.S. Forces Need Unified Satcom, not Status Quo


With mobile devices so ubiquitous these days — even taken for granted — it is difficult to envision going without one for talking, texting, paying bills, navigating, scheduling appointments and accessing the Internet. We live in the age of integrated innovation. By assessing a wide range of needs and matching them to developing technological capabilities in a holistic manner, we attain an optimal state of efficiency and functionality — while saving both time and money.

I would advocate that we take a similar approach with satellite communications for the military community. Imagine the enhanced capability that would be provided for the full spectrum of government operations, from humanitarian relief to full-scale military operation, if the U.S. government developed and executed an integrated satcom architecture and reformed how it acquires satcom.

For too many years, we have resigned ourselves to a model in which multiple U.S. Department of Defense branches are responsible for multiple parts of the package, turning to the commercial satellite industry on an ad hoc basis.

The evolved and current status quo of satcom resulted after years of program delays; asynchronous terminal and ground segment acquisitions; and stove-piped models exacerbated by decades of active conflicts and wars. In light of today’s budget constraints, modern satellite systems and technology flexibility, it is imperative that a new approach be adopted.

In the 20th century, the status quo seemed to suffice. Since then, however, the very face of conflict has changed in ways that were certainly not envisioned when military satellite communications programs were established. In the 1980s, for example, few would have predicted unmanned aerial vehicles.

Indeed, the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and now with the so-called Islamic State have created the current state of highly mobile, asymmetrical and unpredictable global engagement. Ground, air and sea units must be ready to go anywhere at any time — not strictly to battlefields, either, but to suddenly devastated regions in need of humanitarian response.

To do their jobs, our servicemen and women depend upon mobile, data-intensive applications, such as streaming video for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. They do not care about which branch of the military owns which part of the communications architecture, or whether the actual technology is supplied by a DoD or trusted commercial provider. They only want results, in the form of maximum capability, flexibility and resiliency. Satcom needs to go where they go, with smaller, easier-to-use equipment and multiband terminals to ensure it stays up and running no matter how challenging the situational or geographic conditions.

Thus, status quo satellite communications no longer holds up to operational standards, as military leadership is starting to acknowledge: In August 2014, the DoD indicated in its “Satellite Communications Strategy Report” that the military is consuming 10 times more bandwidth than in 2001, and that a five-year plan should include a greater commercial presence within a more centralized structure.

“[A] decentralized approach impedes centralized, multi-year acquisition and hinders the DoD’s ability to manage MILSATCOM and commercial SATCOM as a holistic capability to best support the warfighter,” the report says. It continues to note that the DoD “may have to move toward a ‘shared resource’ model of usage, versus the current ‘my demand/my capacity’ separatist philosophy. This will require a centralized management strategy with resource monitoring and management instantiated on an ‘enterprise-level’ instead of the current method that allows users to implement (and pay for) resource monitoring and usage management at their discretion.”

Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command
Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command. Credit: SpaceNews/Tom Kimmell

Even more recently at the 31st Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, there was an overarching theme among government leaders that a more strategic and intentional partnership between government and industry is necessary to provide the robust capabilities needed by today’s troops. Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command, has been a vocal advocate for a more strategic approach to satcom and mentioned in his keynote speech that this could be achievable “if we choose to buy satcom correctly in the future.”

Inmarsat has led the call for a more cohesive partnership between government and industry for years. With the seemingly insatiable demand for capacity from operational applications, it does not seem sensible to supply satcom through scattered acquisitions, absent of a cohesive architecture. With a centralized military and commercial partnership, commanders will be empowered to leverage the very best of what both commercial satcom and military satcom have to offer. It will cease to matter as to the source of the satellite communications, only that it allows them to execute their mission when and where required, regardless of where they are operating.

Clearly this is an ideal vision, yet it is also an achievable one. Toward this end, military and commercial providers should move forward as partners, not rivals. We must work together to break down long-held siloed practices, build a united satcom community and more importantly provide robust and complementary satcom capabilities.

Through what we call “Satcom as a Service,” the DoD can integrate complex and highly capable solutions within a managed services architecture to achieve this vision. Instead of merely leasing disparate transponders spread throughout the world that are not fully portable — therefore limiting the flexibility of the servicemen and women — complex solutions that are inherently agile can be provided to meet the full spectrum of operations. This allows for a full range of capabilities across multiple spectrums to complement military satcom.

Early steps toward this effort require little to no investment on the part of government: Expanding the frequency tuning on existing and planned military Ka-band terminals and broadening the use of multiband and multimode terminals. Furthermore, embedding the terminal into the service itself can significantly reduce the long-term operations and maintenance costs of replenishment. Such actions represent small yet achievable steps toward “Satcom as a Service” — yet they would optimize reliable system terminals, capacity and capability to deliver abundant options for units to get what’s needed, where it’s needed.

Given that the narrowband and wideband military satcom systems are currently in deployment and will be in use well into the 2020s, augmenting these assets with robust, complementary commercial satcom that is intentionally funded and integrated into the architecture provides diversity and access globally. By working in a partnership with trusted commercial satcom providers, the DoD will benefit from more-innovative buying processes to deliver robust and globally accessible capabilities.

This is not about pitting government against industry in an “either/or” debate. Rather, I advocate the necessity of developing a more strategic partnership and a complementary acquisition strategy that will last well beyond the lifetime of the existing military satcom programs.

As a result, servicemen and women have the opportunity to ultimately receive the flexibility, resiliency, reliability and capabilities they deserve and U.S. taxpayers expect. We owe them nothing less.

Rebecca M. Cowen-Hirsch is Inmarsat senior vice president for government strategy and policy in the U.S. Government business unit, based in Washington.