Army still not sold on satellite broadband as a service

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Maj. Gen. Bassett: There is a desire to modernize the network “but we have to do it a little bit at a time. We can’t afford to throw out the whole Army network and start over."

WASHINGTON — The Army is searching for better ways to bring high-bandwidth data services to the battlefield. Officials regularly hear pitches from satellite operators about new types of broadband services that promise faster speeds, bigger data pipes and a simple fee-for-service payment model.

But the Army is still not convinced that the industry can meet its needs. While it might make sense for corporations or government agencies to buy satellite broadband as a service, the Army faces unique challenges that satellite operators may not fully understand, officials said on Tuesday at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual symposium.

Maj. Gen. David Bassett, the Army’s program executive officer for command, control and communications-tactical, said he is closely watching efforts by several companies to build mega-constellations in low Earth orbit to provide global connectivity. “Going forward there are some really intriguing commercial broadband services that we’d like to be able to capitalize on as these constellations mature and give us the global coverage we need,” Bassett said.

The Army uses a complex data transport warfighter tactical network known as WINT. It invested billions of dollars in this system but in recent years concluded that it’s too bulky, time consuming to deploy and not resilient against cyber threats. Officials are looking for ways to modernize WINT to address these problems.

The issue with commercial satellite services is that they may not be able to perform in tough combat environments, Bassett said. “We have to bring all the infrastructure. We have to make it work” in any type of environment. The Army has a complex network, he said. “The pipes, the apps, the services, he tools to manage the infrastructure, all that has to be done cohesively in an integrated way.”

There is a desire to modernize the network, he said, “but we have to do it a little bit at a time. We can’t afford to throw out the whole Army network and start over. We have to able to build on top of it.”

Over the next 18 to 24 months, the Army will start taking a serious look at what comes after WINT. “We’ll be doing very focused experimentation and making choices on how to go forward,” said Bassett. The first step will be to define what tactical network would be needed for different formations.”

Col. Greg Coile
Col. Greg Coile

Col. Greg Coile, project manager for the Army’s tactical network, told Space News that one of the concerns is that commercial satellite services may not be compatible with most of the military’s terminals, antennas and modems that are used today.

“A lot of what they’re offering is like Comcast or Verizon, you pay for a service every month, you rent the equipment and they’re responsible for it,” Coile said. It sounds attractive, but “we have to think through the second order effects, what are the trades associated with that,” he said. “We’re trading some risk to them but is the cost worth the trade? We are just starting to work through that.”

The idea that the Army would not be able to use its terminals and ground equipment is an issue, “absolutely,” said Coile. “We have thousands of satellite terminals, there are things that are very specific, certain bands they operate in, certain modems and configurations,” he said. “As a new constellation comes in, what band is it going to operate in? Does it change the antenna? Does that new capability require its own modem?”

Coile said he frequently meets with industry executives. “We try to help them understand how they would fit inside our network and how they can make the technology more relevant.”

‘From invention to application’
Ken Peterman, president of government systems at satellite operator Viasat, said the Army raises legitimate questions but the reality is that the commercial industry is where the innovation is happening and where massive investments are being made in new technology.

“The challenge for the Army is moving from a process of invention to a process of application, and leveraging the commercial investments,” Peterman told SpaceNews. “They have to move away from a model where they buy a sincgars [single channel combat radio] and use it for 35 years.”

Terminals are like appliances, he said. At some point they have to be replaced. “The Army is trying to get their arms around this,” he said. “We’re encouraging the conversation.”

Peterman and other industry executives believe the solution is to be able to bring multiple satcom services into a single network so military users are not tied to a single vendor. Viasat developed a “multi-mission terminal” that is used by Special Operations Forces that connects to a hybrid adaptive network architecture. “This allows users to seamlessly operate across different networks, both government and private sector,” said Peterman. This gives users options when there’s network congestion, interference or cyber threats.

At AUSA, ViaSat unveiled a new service to provide troops in the field access to cloud-enabled military applications via its hybrid adaptive network. “We want to make sure he warfighter has the same cloud access as we have in civilian life,” said Peterman. This service has to be completely secure because adversaries could manipulate the cloud data, he said. “The information has to be trusted.”