During a recent satellite communications conference in San Diego, the major discussion topic was how the U.S. military and industry can work more closely together for the benefit of both. It was the same basic dialogue that took place at this conference back in 2003, just as commercial satellites were gaining wide recognition for their prominent role in the U.S.-led war in Iraq, then in its first year. The two sides have made progress in some areas since then, but remain too far apart on the most fundamental issues.

Satellite operators continue to say their largest single customer would get better prices and assured access to future transponder capacity by making upfront financial commitments so that industry can invest in the necessary infrastructure. Defense officials reassure industry that they will always need commercial services because their own satellites will never be able to handle all of the demand. But when pressed, these officials seem unable or unwilling to acknowledge that commercial satellites are, or should be, an integral component of the overall military communications architecture.

Of course, some things have changed – or are about to change – dramatically since 2003. On the military side, the U.S. Air Force is preparing to launch the first of five Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) spacecraft, spearheading a satellite communications overhaul that has been in the works for a decade. Just one of these spacecraft will have more capacity than the entire Defense Satellite Communications System fleet, which the WGS program is intended to replace

. Not far behind are the Air Force’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites, which will offer a similarly dramatic increase in capacity in the realm of highly secure communications.

Satellite operators, meanwhile, are in much better shape than just a few years ago, when a wider telecommunications industry crash left them awash in surplus transponder capacity. Transponder fill rates are up sharply, driven by demand for broadband data, high-definition television and cellular backhaul services, and are expected to climb higher – even as the companies invest in new capacity to meet this demand.

The implication of these trends is that the military and the commercial satellite sector will become less dependent on one another in the future. Don’t bet on it: The transponder-leasing business tends to be cyclical, while the military’s demand for bandwidth continues to grow exponentially.

One reason for the Pentagon’s reluctance to make long-term budgetary commitments to commercial satellite capacity is that it has no way of knowing where or in what way its forces will be engaged over the next 10 to 20 years: Nobody wants to pay for something they may never use.

More generally, defense officials want a larger percentage of their communications traffic to be carried by their own satellites, which already have been paid for in full and which offer protection against interference. This is a perfectly reasonable goal that will in fact be realized once higher-capacity military systems such as WGS become available.

But even the staunchest advocate of reducing military reliance on commercial satellites would today concede that ending it altogether is not possible. Indeed, all evidence to date indicates that the modern military’s thirst for satellite bandwidth is virtually unquenchable.

What continues to persist is a notion that commercial capacity will always be there if and when the military needs it. This is false, and dangerous: It was by lucky coincidence that there was so much capacity available in the Middle East when the war in Iraq began; the situation is likely to be different wherever and whenever the next crisis strikes.

It is only prudent that the U.S. Defense Department hedge against this possibility. For openers, all of the military services need to allocate funding in their annual budget requests and future-year spending plans for commercial satellite capacity: Only the U.S. Navy does so today. In exchange, the Pentagon could secure a commitment from industry to make capacity readily available in places where it makes sense based on likely threat scenarios.

Satellite operators cannot simply shove other customers aside when the military comes calling, however, so fulfilling this commitment likely would entail deploying some excess capacity, which costs money. It is not unreasonable for the military to bear this cost: This is contingency planning and risk management; it’s what the military does when it is not fighting wars.

Satellite operators, meanwhile, can provide a military safety net while minimizing idle capacity through their ability to reposition satellites, reconfigure beams and move customers among different transponders. They also can tailor payloads to specific military needs, or even host military-owned payloads – an arrangement that gets around some of the rules governing Pentagon purchases of transponder capacity.

To do these things, the industry needs to clearly understand its role in the evolving military satellite communications architecture. This only can happen if Defense Department planners fully accept that there is such a role, work closely with industry to define it, and provide foundational support in the form of budget line items for commercial satellite capacity.

The Pentagon took a step in the right direction with its January solicitation of commercial ideas to support its so-called Transformational Communications Architecture. But it is going to have to take more substantive actions to take full advantage of what industry has to offer.