Federal budget-cutting should focus U.S. Air Force officials on hosted payloads as a way to cost-effectively deploy needed in-orbit capabilities more quickly and less expensively than by using dedicated satellites.
Industry officials forcefully express the need for the Air Force to expand the number and kinds of missions that hosted payloads can serve. But despite the federal government’s massive budget deficit — $16 trillion and growing — cuts to the military space budget have yet to spur the tough decisions to save money that could put hosted payloads even more at the forefront of the U.S. military’s space-based options.
Inroads are taking place but not as quickly as might be expected. One positive sign for hosted payloads adoption is that the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) is exploring ways to tap the faster development times and lower development costs that the use of commercial satellites can offer military satellite communications systems.
Air Force decision-makers are aware that hosted payloads can improve the affordability of missions and offer faster delivery times, said Lt. Gen. Ellen M. Pawlikowski, the Air Force’s SMC commander. The admission is tangible progress for the industry but it does not open the floodgates to new contracts.
Industry officials understandably want to win big-money commitments from the Air Force and other branches of the military to use commercial satellites to upgrade the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) in-orbit capabilities in the midst of tightening federal budgets.
The primary question is whether commercial builders and operators can tailor their designs and operations to meet unique military requirements while still maintaining the faster development timelines.
For example, military terminals come in a wide range of sizes and provide varying capabilities, in contrast to most commercial systems that use a narrow range of terminals. Military operations also are dispersed globally, while commercial systems tend to focus on a core user base.
In addition, certain military satellite communications systems have stringent security and availability requirements, as well as a need for guaranteed control of a spacecraft. Commercial systems, in contrast, do not share those requirements.
But commercial satellite builders and operators have shown in the past that they can adapt to the needs of their customers. The satellite manufacturers and operators can point to that track record as proof that they warrant an increased role in the development of future military satellite communications systems.
However, Air Force officials still seem reticent to accept commercial satellite solutions without additional review and study.
“In order to harvest the developmental opportunities presented by commercial satcom, and to prepare for possible business opportunities, SMC is pursuing an improved understanding of these business alternatives via ongoing commercial architecture studies and alternative business investigations,” Pawlikowski recently acknowledged.
As a result, the short term may not offer the best environment for the commercial space industry to win a large number of contracts to host military payloads on private-sector spacecraft. Indeed, new U.S. DoD space capability easily can take at least seven to 10 years to put into orbit.
An example is GPS 3, which received approval in 2000 and is projected to be available for launch in 2014. GPS 3 is expected to be a key contributor to the Air Force’s GPS capability and become the cornerstone of its GPS constellation.
Private-sector officials say hosted payloads can meet significantly shorter timelines that can cut three years or more from the development process for new satellites. A big question for the Air Force is which missions require rigid security and performance standards that prevent the use of commercial hosts.
Another obstacle is the military’s view that certain DoD capabilities are not appropriate to deploy as hosted payloads.
“Many DoD missions have size, power, stabilization and agility requirements that can only be met with a dedicated, customized satellite,” Pawlikowski said. “We will continue to have DoD-unique satellites. Hosted payloads provide us the opportunity to add resiliency to our space architecture but they cannot replace our existing constellations.”
But a different perspective worth considering comes from’s David Anhalt, a retired Air Force colonel and one of the space industry’s strongest advocates of using hosted payloads to meet the needs of the DoD. With an understanding both of the Air Force’s requirements and the capabilities of the private sector, he said a wider number of military communications needs can be met through hosted payloads than currently are open for bidding. Anhalt, vice president of U.S. government solutions at Space Systems/Loral, is responsible for supporting development of U.S. government business, with an emphasis on SMC opportunities.
The industry’s view is supported by a Government Accountability Office report released this year that concluded numerous Air Force weapons programs faced cost overruns and hefty obsolescence expenses. It seems reasonable to conclude from those findings that the merit of putting government payloads on commercial satellites deserves added weight.
If the Air Force expands the numbers and kinds of military missions that hosted payloads can serve, the dual benefits of quicker deployment of services and significant cost savings can become reality rather than distant possibilities.
Paul Dykewicz is a seasoned journalist who has covered the development of satellite television, satellite radio, satellite broadband and hosted payloads.