Providing satellite communications services to the U.S. government, particularly the military, is big business these days. Commercial satellite operators have seen government sales skyrocket as the U.S. Defense Department scrambles to meet the bandwidth demand from forces actively engaged in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
Given the military’s emphasis on information superiority and growing dependence on bandwidth hogs like unpiloted aircraft, this demand — some 80 percent of which is satisfied today by commercial satellites — is unlikely to subside anytime soon. While the Pentagon is deploying new satellites that will dramatically increase its own capacity, some of these systems have suffered delays and one, the U.S. Air Force’s futuristic Transformational Satellite communications system, was canceled this year.
To date, the primary beneficiaries of the mismatch between bandwidth and demand have been established global satellite operators like . The biggest operators, Intelsat and SES, have set up U.S.-based subsidiaries to sell services to the government., and
U.S. Space LLC arrived on the scene this year looking to get in on the action. U.S. Space likes to point out that, unlike the established operators, it is based entirely in the United States and seeks to do business exclusively with the U.S. government.
The company’s leadership is stocked with former U.S. defense officials and space industry executives; the latest addition to the board, for example, is former U.S. National Reconnaissance Office Director Donald Kerr. The president and chief executive, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Craig Weston, is plying familiar territory, having served in the Pentagon as an acquisition planner for communications satellites and as deputy program director of the Military Satellite Communications Joint Program Office at Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif.
Lacking any space infrastructure of its own, U.S. Space is hoping to win a U.S. government commitment to buy its services, which would help it secure enough financing in today’s challenging markets to build and launch satellites. A key industrial partner, Orbital Sciences Corp., would provide relatively low-cost satellites based on its Star-series geostationary platform and launches aboard the as-yet untested Minotaur 5, a five-stage vehicle based in part on Peacekeeper missile motors. Orbital assembles the Minotaur family of rockets for the U.S. Air Force.
Weston recently spoke with Space News correspondent Jeremy Singer.
U.S. space policy dictates that rockets based on excess missile hardware, like the Minotaur 5, be used for government missions only. How would
Space, as a commercial entity, gain access to that vehicle?
U.S. Space will be providing military payloads that will be placed in U.S. government orbital positions, so it is essentially a government mission provided on a commercial basis. We believe there are several methods by which the government can make the Minotaur 5 available for this purpose.
What is the main barrier you face in trying to sign a satellite communications services deal with the Pentagon?
There is no one place at the Defense Department where one entity has the need for satellite communications services, the funds to pay for them, and the ability to contract for them. There are various agencies that are responsible for each of those, so you have to get them together in a collaborative fashion to make that happen.
We are trying to help the Air Force, Navy, Defense Information Systems Agency and the Office of the Secretary of Defense connect the dots. We’re keeping them all informed so that when the time is right, maybe they’ll collaborate if they think it appropriate, to adopt this business model.
We haven’t talked to the Army yet. That is somebody that we should be talking to.
What would be a good window of opportunity?
The time is right now. From the Navy’s perspective, the UHF Follow-On (UFO) program is rapidly dying off. The Mobile User Objective System () program is stretching out. And Congress has directed the Navy to establish not only a new program baseline for MUOS, but to come back to Congress with a plan for how they’re going to begin to fill the gap when UFO dies off and MUOS is not there to meet the need.
We would argue that this is a perfect opportunity for a UHF supplement. Another opportunity is the need for airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data relay. Today, much of that is done by commercial providers, but that requires commercial terminals and reliance on commercial satellites that may not be well positioned in all cases to execute that service. And we all know that the demand for wideband capacity for unmanned aircraft is not going to decrease. If anything, it’s going to increase.
Again, the idea is that those two needs I identified are very, very near term. They’re right now. Who can very quickly respond to those needs, do so with a military payload so the Defense Department can reuse its terminals and can manage the payload as one of its own, and be able to do that without the Defense Department having to put any money up front in terms of acquiring the system?
All they have to do is budget the money for the operations and maintenance several years downstream, so it gives them time to do the budgeting. We would argue that there are few — if any — organizations in the position to provide that combination of unique attributes to the department right now.
If the Pentagon elected to use your services, when would it have to begin budgeting money?
If they decide to contract with us today, they need to make sure the money is in the 2012 budget. They could make a decision to go on contract with us today and still have time to deal with the out-year budgets.
If the Pentagon puts money in the 2012 budget, when could you have the service ready?
We could have a satellite on orbit in substantially less than three years.
Three years sounds pretty ambitious. How are you going to meet that goal?
There is no risk to the technology. We are going to use small satellites with medium capacity, using our industry partners’ proven technology for both the payload and the satellite bus.
We’re adopting a production mentality so we can produce small satellites with medium capacity much quicker than it takes to produce the very large military satellites, some of which have unproven technology that needs to be validated.
One reason the MUOS program is delayed is that integrating the legacy UHF payload onto the Lockheed Martin A2100 satellite platform has proved to be much tougher than envisioned. What makes you think
Space and its contracting team won’t have similar problems?
Orbital has successfully integrated a variety of payloads onto its satellites, including a number of communications systems. Our team is aware of the unique considerations — to include electromagnetic compatibility — in integrating UHF payloads onto spacecraft and are planning our program accordingly.
Do you envision launching a full satellite constellation for the Pentagon?
It depends on what the government wants. If the Navy felt the gap between UFO and MUOS was such that one additional — one supplemental — satellite would close that gap until MUOS comes along, we could build that one satellite. If they felt they’d like to have a constellation of four satellites that could be put in the same general location as the UFO satellites today, we could do that too, and we could do that very rapidly.
How quickly could you populate a four-satellite constellation?
We believe we could provide a four-satellite constellation in well under five years — on orbit, operational. Well under five years.
Are you thinking exclusively about communications, or would you like to move into other missions as well?
We’ve had other people approach us about this business model being used for other military missions, or for civil missions, like Earth observing or weather, and have talked to some of the agencies involved with them. We would suggest you apply it in areas where technology is proven, and the service to provide it is rapidly becoming a commodity, rather than sophisticated, unique kinds of missions or technology — things that are prime to be outsourced to the commercial domain because the government has bought down the risk and proven the technology consistently over a number of years. Why not outsource it to an industry partner who can build it in a flexible, responsive, cost-effective manner?
Which agencies have approached you about missions unrelated to communications?
I’ll just say they’re agencies in the national security domain. We have also talked to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and we think NASA could be a potential customer too. NASA is outsourcing its space station resupply mission, so we think they would be receptive to this kind of business model.