Satellite operators working to attract military business

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The industry has invested in high-throughput satellites that cover 99 percent of world. The military is a major target customer.

LONDON — The trend in military communications: Huge data pipes and tiny terminals, all at affordable prices. And don’t forget cybersecurity.

Satellite operators say they are bringing to market the products and services that fit these demands. One problem that typically gets in the way is that the industry’s business models and military requirements don’t necessarily align. Companies in the United States, particularly, have for years debated with the Pentagon a strategy for how to satisfy national security needs without having to design military-unique systems.

The industry has invested billions of dollars in so-called high-throughput satellites that cover 99 percent of world and feed the world’s growing appetite for the “internet of things.” The military is a major target customer.

In the military, “they want video everywhere, and they want it to be high def,” said Skot Butler, president of Intelsat General Corporation. The company is in the process of launching a constellation of seven Epic high-throughput satellites. Other firms are doing the same.

But they are still are waiting for the Pentagon to decide on methods to acquire these services. A “wideband analysis of alternatives” study is now underway and the Defense Department has invited industry representatives to pitch ideas. Butler has sat at many of these meetings. His take: The military wants a “hybrid” setup so it can use both government-owned and commercial satellites. But the devil is in the details.

“It does seem likely that they’ll have some government-owned capability,” he told SpaceNews in an interview this week during the Global Milsatcom conference.

The government-owned bandwidth is provided by the Wideband Global Satcom constellation, which also services several other countries that signed a partnership deal with the U.S. government. What’s important to private-sector operators, Butler said, is that “commercial is actually designed into the architecture rather than treated as an afterthought purchased on the spot market.”

Clearly the industry would like to see the Pentagon move towards a different model: Instead of using WGS for routine operations, why not use higher-capacity commercial systems and save WGS for sensitive missions? “If they flipped the model and put their enduring requirements on commercial, they could build fewer of their own satellites,” Butler argued.

How the wideband study will turn out is anyone’s guess at this point. It will not be completed until next summer and that will be followed by a report with specific recommendations. “It’s hard to see how things will work and how the timing is going to work,” Butler said. The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, in parallel, is working on pilot programs with various companies to try different approaches to acquire commercial satcom. But the pilots are not scheduled to wrap up until way after the wideband study. This is a problem, he said. “They may not take advantage of what they learn.”

Within the military market, the needs are diverse. One of the most forward-leaning users of commercial technology is the U.S. Special Operations Command. Special operations teams, for instance, are flying small drones equipped with wideband terminals. That is significant because until recently only large unmanned aircraft like the Air Force’s Global Hawk and Predator could handle the weight of the terminals.

There are now tiny six-inch flat panels available that can be installed aboard small “class 3” drones so they can pipe live video. SOCOM units are just one customer for this technology. “There’ll be more applications for border surveillance and drug interdiction,” Butler said. Intelsat has teamed with commercial terminal manufacturers like Gilat and Kymeta to package wideband services for different users.

The defense market in general is still uncertain, and will stay that way until the Pentagon finds a way to mesh commercial providers into its communications infrastructure.

At the Global Milsatcom conference, Martin Amen, senior director of Northrop Grumman Mission Systems, said he is working with the Army on a cloud-based system that would integrate military and commercial satellite networks.

In Europe, several nations are seeking ways to tap into commercial satcom capacity for government and military use. A “govsatcom” project is trying to pool resources from key European countries, although the details so far are vague.

Europe’s space industry champion Luxembourg two years ago decided that, to comply with NATO’s requirement that member nations should spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, it would invest in a military communications satellite. It teamed with satcom operator SES on a $250 million GovSat venture that is run like a private company but was created to provide military services to NATO.

The first satellite, the geostationary GovSat-1, is produced and launched by American companies. Orbital ATK manufactured the spacecraft, which is scheduled to launch early next year aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. GovSat Vice President Paul Wells said once the first satellite is up and running, the service will be offered to countries outside of NATO as well as to the United Nations and non-governmental organizations.

“We’re doing military satcom in a commercial way,” Wells told SpaceNews.