British Military’s Satellite Capacity Nearing Its Limit

by

LONDON — The British Defence Ministry, which thought it was securing all the satellite communications capacity it would need, and then some, when it signed a multibillion-dollar satellite services contract in 2003, is already confronting a capacity crunch that is forcing it to use a satellite that was intended as an in-orbit spare, according to ministry officials.

These officials said the current in-orbit fleet at their disposal — most of the capacity on three new Skynet 5 satellites, plus what remains on three aging Skynet 4 spacecraft, plus the availability of commercial leases for low-security requirements — is enough for now. The problem is what happens in the next few years if the current demand growth continues.

“Our UHF and SHF demand already exceeds what we had in our models,” said British Navy Commander Harry Straughan, who coordinates strategic and long-haul communications, including satellite communications. “Current requirements bear no resemblance to the original modeling carried out 10 years ago.”

In a Nov. 2 address here to the Global Milsatcom conference organized by SMi Group, Straughan said British defense forces have already begun operational use of the Skynet 5C satellite, which was launched in June 2008 and was supposed to be reserved as a spare.

Skynet 5C followed the launch in 2007 of the Skynet 5A and Skynet 5B spacecraft. All three were procured by Astrium Services’ Paradigm Secure Communications subsidiary under a services contract lasting until 2020 and valued at 3.6 billion British pounds ($6 billion).

Paradigm had Skynet 5C built and launched in part as a substitute for making payments under an insurance policy covering the in-orbit assets. Under the contract, Paradigm is obliged to provide British forces a certain amount of connectivity. If one of the Skynet 5 satellites fails, it is Paradigm’s responsibility to replace the missing capacity.

The NATO alliance also is using Skynet 5 as part of a contract signed in 2005 and lasting to 2019. The contract, valued at some 457 million euros ($681 million), provides for capacity from Italy’s Sicral and France’s Syracuse satellite communications systems in addition to Skynet 5.

The Skynet 5 system was declared fully operational in March. British defense officials have been unanimous in their public praise for how the services contract has evolved. “Is the customer happy? It’s an unequivocal yes,” said British Navy Commander Nigel Chandler, the Defence Ministry’s chief information officer for J6 operations, which coordinates use of military satellite communications.

Chandler told the conference Nov. 3 that, for now, “I am comfortable that there is enough surge capacity available” on the Skynet satellite system. But he conceded that one of the most important questions his office asks commanders is: “Do you really need it? If we accepted all the requests, the system would be full. There are a series of checks and balances. Work is under way to make Skynet 5C operational, and we review our capacity requirements on an annual basis.”

Straughan, whose office looks several years in the future, said the Skynet 5 contract was based on a demand forecast made in 1998 for SHF and UHF requirements. The increased use of tactical communications in UHF has proved those forecasts wrong, while a military engagement like Afghanistan and the use of bandwidth-hungry unmanned aerial vehicles have had the same effect on SHF demand.

All this, he said, is likely to continue. “The predicted growth in our [bandwidth] requirement is almost scary,” Straughan said. “Within five years, demand will be at least double where it is now, and we are already double where we thought we would be.”

Forty percent of the total growth in demand is for transmission of imagery and ISTAR — intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance — as field commanders request increased doses of full-motion video, he said.

NATO is encountering the same problem, according to Malcolm Green, chief of network information infrastructure communications at the NATO C3 Agency. Green told the conference that NATO’s current use of satellite bandwidth “was never envisaged when we started” designing the contract that eventually was signed to use British, French and Italian satellite capacity.

Similarly, French Air Force Commander AlexandreBaillot, military and civil satcom leader of the French joint defense staff’s space and joint systems division, said bandwidth demand from French forces is increasing by 15 to 20 percent a year. He said separating must-have requirements from those that are less urgent is a major task. “Our message to users is that they can do their jobs without getting everything they want” in terms of bandwidth, he said.

British officials are weighing whether to revise their Paradigm contract to permit construction and launch of a Skynet 5D satellite, for which long-lead items already have been ordered.

Other options are to continue to press for greater efficiency in the use of bandwidth to squeeze more data from a delivered megahertz. “We need to consider building more capacity, but we also need to find out what the real requirement is,” Straughan said. “Our original modeling has not stood the test of time particularly well. Will current modeling be any more accurate?”