Britain Sees Continued Growth in Demand for Military Communications Capability

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LONDON — The British Defence Ministry has concluded that it will need more communications capability in a decade than it uses today even if there are no more long-term engagements such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The ministry has also concluded that a core piece of future communications capacity must meet strict sovereignty requirements that likely will force it to be British-owned rather than owned as part of a bilateral or multilateral partnership.

While the default assumption is that beyond-line-of-sight communication will be provided by satellite, ministry officials preparing a strategy document said they are reviewing a wide range of options including high-altitude platforms.

They said they have not shut the door on the purchase or lease of commercial satellites for non-core communications not requiring nuclear hardening or other features that are secure but costly.

In presentations here Nov. 5 to the Global Milsatcom conference organized by SMi Global, British officials reiterated that they are happy with their long-term outsourcing of their satellite communications functions to Astrium Services, which financed the four Skynet 5 satellites in orbit and operates them until the contract expires in September 2022.

“Our current contract with Astrium is undoubtedly a success,” said Cmdr. Ian Pears, director of the Capability Branch at the British Joint Forces Command. 

He said that even if the outsourcing model has worked well in the 10 years since the contract was signed, it is not a foregone conclusion that this will be the way the next generation of satellite capacity is handled.

Ownership of the four Skynet 5 satellites and their ground infrastructure transfers to the British Defence Ministry at the contract’s end in 2022.

What to do after that is a subject of debate that should lead, in 2015, to a Strategic Defence & Security Review that will drive acquisition decisions. Officials said it could take nine years once requirements are set to get a satellite into orbit, meaning they need to make decisions in relatively short order.

Perhaps the key finding of the review so far is that demand for communications, even when including only those deemed critical for national sovereignty or for the security of a military action, will be going up despite the withdrawals from Afghanistan.

“We will assume continued increase in demand” for what officials working on the requirements review term Level 1 and Level 2 communications links demanding the highest security, Cmdr. Pears said. The Capability Branch at the British Joint Forces Command is piloting the study.

He said that while the sovereignty requirement appears nonnegotiable, Britain remains interested in international collaboration where such agreements allow it to retain full control of the core capability.

How the British sovereignty mandate squares with its talks with France on a combined future military satellite telecommunications capacity is unclear. It would also complicate the European Defense Agency’s efforts to promote pooling and sharing of in-orbit capacity among European Union governments.

The 28-nation NATO alliance is closely watching the French-British dialogue because Europe’s next-generation military satellite communications system may serve NATO as well. NATO currently has access to the British, French and Italian satellites under a long-term contract.

For now, Britain’s X-band requirement is satisfied by the Astrium Services-managed Skynet 5 service. Britain is also one of the nations using the U.S. Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite system, and is a partner in the U.S. Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) UHF-band constellation now being fielded. For the moment, U.S. allies’ use of MUOS is limited to its legacy payload that is compatible with existing ground hardware. It does not include the higher-speed payload.

For the moment, the British military command has not listed a requirement for capacity as part of the U.S. Wideband Global Satcom military Ka-band constellation. Cmdr. Pears and other officials said Britain’s eventual use of Ka-band is almost certain — “it’s certainly on our radar,” he said — but that for now it is not part of its operational requirements.

The lack of a Ka-band requirement is one reason Astrium Services has hesitated before investing in emerging military Ka-band capacity being made available by London-based Inmarsat’s Global Xpress satellites, whose launches are scheduled to start in December.

Capt. Ian Annett of the Information Superiority Staff in the British Navy Command said the evaluation of post-Skynet 5 requirements will not be limited to satellite options. He said some naval communications today that do not require full protection are travelling over encrypted links provided by commercial satellite fleet operators. He summarized them as “slow and expensive.”

Capt. Annett said today’s demand for near-continuous connectivity, including bandwidth for personal use, is one of the factors informing the British study. Annett said the question of “How best do we get WiFi down to the bunk space?” is one of the issues to be addressed.

 

Follow Peter on Twitter: @pbdes


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Britain Sees Continued Growth in Demand for Military Communications Capability