PARIS — Remember the forecast that in Afghanistan and Iraq, “boots on the ground will be replaced by eyes in the sky”? That was the hope of commercial satellite fleet operators — that troop withdrawals and the corresponding decline in satellite connectivity in these war zones would be matched by increased use of bandwidth-hungry unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
The evidence thus far suggests that this will not be the case, according to an in-depth study by Euroconsult of Paris, which examines U.S. and non-U.S. use of UAVs in recent years and concludes that as go the boots, so goes the satellite bandwidth demand.
The report, “Military Satellite Communications 2014 Edition,” raises the possibility that Iraq and Afghanistan were special circumstances that were ideal for UAV use, and thus for commercial bandwidth to carry their video streams from the field to the command centers.
“Afghanistan’s special demand for UAVs may not be reproduced elsewhere, and total UAV demand could fall sharply under certain circumstances,” the report says. “The idea that the next conflict will mobilize a lot of UAVs is no longer taken for granted, even within the U.S. Air Force.”
The report is studded with qualifiers noting that demand forecasts depend on what kinds of fighting — small yearlong conflicts, a couple of midlevel engagements or a major Afghan-scale war — are fought in the coming 10 years. But while warfare’s automation with UAVs continues, the major driver remains the number of troops engaged in a given theater, the report says.
“Clearly UAVs are here to stay, but we will only see them employed in numbers big enough to make a difference to the satellite industry in conflicts where a lot of ground troops are deployed and require air support — and where the enemy is unable to shoot them down,” said Stephane Chenard, a senior Euroconsult analyst and the report’s principal author. “Except for Afghanistan, since 2009 no conflict has met these conditions or mobilized a substantial amount of commercial capacity.”
The U.S. Defense Department used nearly 11 gigahertz of satellite bandwidth in 2013, of which 8.5 gigahertz came from commercial sources. But assuming a general peacetime scenario — no major wars — in the next decade, demand could fall by nearly 50 percent, to 5.6 gigahertz, of which perhaps 3.6 gigahertz would be required of commercial suppliers. In 2012, morale, welfare and recreation services to troops accounted for up to 25 percent of the U.S. military bandwidth capacity use.
There are several factors that could keep future bandwidth demand from matching or surpassing what happened in the past decade with Iraq and Afghanistan. One has to do with the low bandwidth efficiency of current military use of commercial satellites.
Adaptive coding modulation, which gives users more use for a given megahertz of capacity, has been slow to penetrate the military use of satellites in part because of its incompatibility with certain military encryption systems. This is sure to change, meaning tomorrow’s military will get more throughput for a given satellite transponder than has been the case so far.
Another Afghanistan-specific phenomenon was the U.S. Air Force’s relatively unimpeded use of Afghan airspace, allowing slow-moving UAVs to traverse the skies taking video without much chance of being shot down. There is no guarantee that any other conflict will be so hospitable to UAVs.
The Libyan military operation was an example of a conflict in which UAVs did not play a predominant role — it was “a non-event for commercial satellite operators,” the report says, as broadcast news organizations used more capacity than NATO troops.
UAVs’ costs — both at purchase and to operate, including the large number of image analysts needed to exploit an aircraft providing full-motion video — are also likely to weigh on military commanders’ minds as they approach new conflicts.
As in most military categories, the UAV story is one of the United States and the seven dwarves. For UAVs, it’s literally seven as just seven other nations — France, Germany, Israel, Turkey, Britain and China — operate military UAVs. These nations in 2013 had a combined fleet of around 40 satellite-linked UAVs, compared with more than 400 in the U.S. military.
“High-resolution video is becoming the rule,” Chenard said. “Some top-end UAVs require an entire [36-megahertz equivalent] satellite transponder. They cost millions, and flood analysts with more data than they can use, so they are not likely to fly in large numbers.”
One of the hottest arguments in the satellite industry now is whether Ku-band on UAVs will be replaced by Ka-band, especially as the U.S. Air Force completes deployment of up to 10 Wideband Global Satcom Ka-band satellites, in which several U.S. allies have also invested.
Euroconsult concludes that Ku-band still has several good years ahead of it. By 2023, when the global UAV fleet is expected to double to 1,000 aircraft, Ku-band will still account for 60 percent of the capacity, the report says, down from 90 percent today as Ka-band makes inroads.
The total numbers of UAVs can be misleading given that only a minority of them are flying at any given time — 20 percent now but likely declining to 14 percent in 2015 and 5 percent in 2016 in the absence of any new military conflict.