WASHINGTON — The Defense Department is contemplating ways to bring modern satellite communications services into the military. The Pentagon routinely taps the private sector for satellite capacity in times of need but now is looking to set up a more permanent arrangement to provide military users with commercial satellite services.

The next step will be to prototype an integrated network with multiple satellite vendors providing seamless connectivity as if it were cellphone service. The Defense Department awarded Hughes Network Systems a contract to develop a “flexible modem interface” for military terminals that would allow military and commercial systems to interoperate in the field, the company announced May 7.

Rick Lober, vice president and general manager of defense and intelligence systems at Hughes, said the new contract is the second phase of a continuing pilot program to gauge how multiple satellite communications system can work together to support the military.

“What they are looking at now is ‘where does commercial satcom fit into the picture for the future?’” Lober told SpaceNews.

Several companies  received contracts last year from the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center for the first phase of a pilot program to define the ground-based architecture for the military. The second phase takes the project further from conceptual studies to an actual network prototype, said Lober. The Pentagon will spend about $10 million on this effort.

Kratos was awarded a second-phase contract to “demonstrate how a combined military and commercial satcom architecture can be more resilient while also minimizing impact and cost to the existing suite of ground terminals,” John Monahan, senior vice president of Kratos said in a statement to SpaceNews. He said this is being done in partnership with major commercial owner operators.

Major operators that supply satellite bandwidth to the military include ViaSat, Inmarsat, Intelsat, SES and Hughes’ parent company EchoStar. The military also uses its own Wideband Global SATCOM satellites, known as WGS. “DoD would like to get interoperability so they can switch between them,” Lober said. “That’s what this pilot is about.”

The pilot program is projected to last about 12 months. As this efforts gets underway, the Pentagon is wrapping up an analysis of military wideband communications requirements that looks at how to build a future architecture that combines DoD-owned and commercial satellites.

“We’re hoping for a third pilot in fiscal year 2019 that will be a larger scale demo of how networks would interoperate,” said Lober.

Commercial providers were taken aback in March when Congress added $600 million to the Air Force’s budget for the procurement of two new WGS satellites made by Boeing. The Air Force said it will move forward to expand the WGS network but still wants to evaluate ways to use more commercial services.

Lober said the military “seems to be much more proactive on how they can use commercial satcom than they were in the past.” A central issue for the industry is how DoD adjusts to a different business model — buying “managed services” rather than straight-up satellite capacity. “Instead of DoD buying bandwidth and setting up their own network, they would buy a certain amount of capacity every month,” Lober said. “That’s the future as we see it. We feel the military can go to a managed service model, they can save equipment and personnel costs.”

DoD does not want to be pinned down to one particular provider, Lober said. “They’d like to trade between providers as needed.” Commercial satellite networks talk to each other at a high level, but DoD wants “interoperability at the field level.”

Securing managed services contracts with the Defense Department is key to many companies’ business strategies as they weigh future investments in new satellites. Typically the military only uses about 10 percent of the commercial capacity. The available bandwidth has increased dramatically in recent years as companies introduced high-throughput satellites into the market. “WGS has 4 to 6 gigabytes of capacity,” Lober said. “Our first high-throughput satellites was 100 gigabytes. Our second has over 200 gigabytes, and the third will have will be more.”

The Pentagon has said it also wants to work with the emerging low earth orbit broadband constellations like OneWeb. Hughes is the supplier of OneWeb’s ground network.

DoD is seeking a “secure and affordable wideband communications architecture that can facilitate varied and redundant space and ground transports,” Lober said. The architecture would support wide-beam, spot-beam, and on-board processing satellites, including new GEO high-throughput satellites  and low earth orbit constellations.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...