Can the Warfighter Trust Commercial SATCOM?

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“Never go into a war counting on commercial SATCOM.” It sounded like good advice in December 2001 when I received an e-mail containing that quote from my mentor, Nick Balovich. Back then, I shared the universal truth that the U.S. government had to own and operate all the communications systems supporting our forces.

The supporting rationale behind that quote was a statement made by a communicator on Air Force One that on Sept. 11, 2001, “Inmarsat was clobbered immediately after the attack. Military systems saved the day.”

The fact of the matter is that there was no jamming or interference. There was simply a surge in demand by paying customers who had established long-term, profitable relationships with commercial operators. That’s the way commercial systems work. Those who pay for a service get the service. Those who want to accept “best efforts” and ad hoc usage go to the end of the line. And, as the people on Air Force One found out, you can’t even play the “This is the president of the United States” card because you can’t get a dial tone!

I still believe the U.S. government must develop, own and operate those systems that absolutely, positively must be there when called upon. I describe that as “heroic survivability.” Once upon a time, we had an architecture that broke communications down into “Strategic,” “Tactical” and “General Purpose” bins, with the smallest of those bins being “Strategic.” Unfortunately, the term “Strategic” was also almost exclusively associated with nuclear control orders. I propose the bins be “Sine Qua Non,” “Really, Really Important” and “Day to Day Stuff That Needs to Be Done.” Josh Hartman put it much more eloquently in his Space News letter to the editor of June 21, 2010, titled “The Best Approach to Milsatcom Security.” Read it! Take it to heart! He hits the mark on all counts.

A panelist at a recent conference said, “God didn’t make enough bandwidth.” Compounding that lack of foresight on the part of the Almighty, Claude Shannon set up some rules on how that bandwidth works and the International Telecommunication Union parceled out who gets to use what pieces of bandwidth. The entire amount of spectrum “owned” by the U.S. government is insufficient to meet the information transfer needs of our forces in the field. Not only have our needs grown exponentially, but commercial technology has outpaced government development in this area. So, wake up! We must become a valued and reliable customer of commercial systems to leverage the spectrum allocated to them. This means long-term financial commitments to ensure the services required will be available.

The response from the U.S. government will be: “We’re working on it. Hey, we wrote the Future COMSATCOM Services Acquisition deal!” Unfortunately, and despite the overwhelming presence of commercial systems in the field today, the “don’t trust commercial” thought process still permeates the top-level planning, requirements and bias of our military. That thought process has become what the philosopher Michel Foucault described as an “episteme” — a set of fundamental assumptions that are so basic that they become invisible to people operating within it. Change requires an “epistemic break”: a watershed in history when a new frame for looking at the world interposes itself — a shift in consciousness where the once unthinkable becomes thinkable. Here’s the unthinkable shift: “Never go into a war without commercial SATCOM!”

As Maroon 5 put it: “Is there anyone out there ’cuz it’s getting harder and harder to breathe.” Smart people keep offering ideas on how to fix the problems. Is anyone out there listening?

 

Bob Maskell, a retired U.S. Navy commander, is chief executive officer of Plan B Space Systems Consulting LLC.