The U.S. Defense Department’s decision to cancel the Air Force’s Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) communications system was the right call given the impending defense budget squeeze and the cost and risk associated with the futuristic system.
However, the military’s soaring demand for secure satellite communications capacity remains, notwithstanding the pending overhaul of the U.S. Army’s Future Combat Systems program, a bandwidth-intensive collection of ground and aerial vehicles tightly networked together for coordinated operations. While the restructured program likely will feature less-complex platforms, the mobility and connectivity requirements remain. The same holds true more broadly for the U.S. military, which Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been tasked with reshaping to focus on the types of wars it is likely to fight in the future: low-intensity and guerilla conflicts – as opposed to classic conventional battles – where information and mobility are at a premium.
T-Sat was not the answer, however. Despite being scaled back in response to a changing requirement set and in order to lower its cost and technical risk, the system was still too big, too complex and, at $26 billion, too expensive. The satellites were to be 9-ton behemoths, precisely the types of platforms experts say take too long to build, almost always wind up costing far more than advertised and rarely live up to original performance expectations. The loss of one such satellite in a launch or on-orbit failure would leave a huge void in capability, not to mention the taxpayers’ pocketbooks.
Moreover, the most recent T-Sat development timetable – first launch was envisioned around 2019 – all but ensured that the system, which often was criticized as overly ambitious, would in some cases utilize obsolete technology.
Pentagon officials have said that in place of T-Sat they will buy more of the previous generation of military communications systems: Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellites developed by Lockheed Martin and Boeing-built Wideband Global Satcom craft. Both systems, while far superior to those they are replacing, fall well short of the capabilities envisioned for T-Sat. This can be partially addressed through a carefully planned program of block upgrades that incorporate new capabilities as feasible and prudent. Technical risk could be reduced through a parallel research, development and test program tailored specifically to the capabilities and limitations of the existing satellite platforms.
Military officials have stressed, however, that there are limits to how much capability can be wrung out of the AEHF and Wideband Global platforms. This means the Pentagon is going to have to get creative if it hopes to further narrow the bandwidth gap between those systems and what T-Sat was supposed to deliver. This likely will entail making wider and more efficient use of commercial services, perhaps by entering into long-term contracts with satellite operators – as opposed to the current reliance on one-year leases at spot market prices – and subsidizing military-specific capabilities aboard these spacecraft. Budget permitting, the Air Force also should consider an alternative constellation of satellites that incorporate some of the capabilities envisioned for T-Sat – communications on the move, for example – while leaving the rest to other platforms.
As Mr. Gates has made crystal clear, the days of unrestrained defense spending are over. The military, meanwhile, is being readied for a transition into a different kind of fighting force, one that emphasizes speed, agility, flexibility and creativity. It will have to adopt these same attributes as a buyer of satellite communications systems and services if it is to have any hope of keeping up with the bandwidth demand that will result from this transition.