NATO Sets Mid-2014 Deadline for Securing Future Satcom Capacity

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LONDON — The NATO alliance, already well behind schedule in securing new satellite communications capacity, has given itself 18 months to determine how it will purchase bandwidth once its current contracting vehicle expires, a senior alliance procurement officer said.

The long-delayed satellite communications capacity package, called CP 9A0130, is expected to be completed by mid-2014 and to outline NATO’s future mix of purchases of commercial and dedicated military bandwidth.

Malcolm Green, an acquisition manager at the NATO Communications and Information Agency, said the alliance has no time to waste if it wishes to secure capacity in time to replace bandwidth now provided by a joint venture of Britain, France and Italy under a 15-year contract that ends in 2019.

All this was supposed to have been done by now but has been delayed by NATO’s famously slow procurement process, leaving the agency with little maneuvering room.

“Nations and commercial providers willing to match NATO’s requirements need four to five years to plan ahead,” Green said here during the Global Milsatcom conference organized by SMi Group. “We need to be able to get commitments now — in the short term. We cannot sit back and expect that one nation will over-dimension its military needs on the assumption of NATO demand.

“We have nothing after 2019.”

NATO purchased superhigh- and ultrahigh-frequency-band satellite capacity from the three-nation consortium in 2005 as part of a program called NATO Satcom Post 2000. The three nations pooled their national systems — Britain’s Skynet, France’s Syracuse 3 and Italy’s Sicral — to win a contract valued at 457 million euros, or about $600 million at current exchange rates.

A separate procurement of extremely high-frequency capacity was funded but never carried out. That money remains available for the next procurement, Green said.

Green said NATO is looking at a similar arrangement — leasing capacity from national systems that would be developed anyway — for the next contract. But without getting any indication of what capacity NATO will need in what frequency bands, these nations will build satellite systems that may leave no room for NATO requirements.

France is discussing separately with Britain and Italy on whether to pool resources for their next-generation satellite systems. France has said it expects to begin making irreversible decisions on its post-Syracuse 3 capacity starting in 2014. Britain and Italy are on different schedules, as is the United States. Multiple NATO members, including Germany, Spain and Turkey, manage their own satellite capacity.

“Without the ability to join national programs, we risk paying higher prices, or not having any capacity available to us,” Green said.

The downward pressure on most of these nations’ defense budgets argues in favor of pooling capacity, but satellite bandwidth is still viewed as a strategic requirement where national sovereignty often outweighs financial considerations.

In addition to purchases of encrypted, protected capacity on the French, British and Italian military satellites, NATO regularly buys bandwidth on commercial spacecraft. But here too, Green said, the agency is aware that it can no longer assume commercial satellite operators will have available capacity in areas of interest to NATO members.

NATO’s core requirement is to be able to deploy forces and the communications infrastructure associated with a modern military force anywhere within 15,000 kilometers of NATO’s Belgium headquarters.

Green said the agency projects that it may need additional capacity as soon as early 2015 given the demand for communications in any NATO engagement.

NATO divides its satellite communications needs into five categories, ranging from “survivable,” meaning the satellites that are capable of surviving a high-altitude nuclear explosion, to “commercial,” meaning lowest-priority communications that can be provided by commercial satellite fleet operators.

The higher-priority communications are mainly in superhigh and extremely high frequencies. Ka- and superhigh-frequency-band services can be provided on satellites that are not radiation-hardened and are less protected against detection and interference.

For the commercial capacity, Green did not specifically say NATO is interested in placing NATO-dedicated hosted payloads on satellites being built by commercial fleet operators based in NATO nations. But his remarks suggested that the agency is not excluding this kind of arrangement, which has been used by U.S. and Australian defense authorities to cut costs.

Green said one possible procurement mechanism, also well-used in the United States, is an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity agreement. Commercial satellite fleet operators have said they are fine with this, but that such arrangements provide them with no incentive to build extra capacity into satellites they are already building because of the lack of a guaranteed purchase.

Green endorsed comments made by satellite fleet operators including SES of Luxembourg and Intelsat of Luxembourg and Washington, who have said short-term, last-minute purchases of capacity by allied militaries in recent years have found a plentiful commercial supply that is unlikely to be repeated in the coming years.

 

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