Editorial: Preventing a Gap

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The U.S. Navy appears to have two main choices as it ponders how best to address a potential gap in its satellite communications capability toward the end of the decade: it can either do nothing and hope for the best, or take one of several available measures to ensure that U.S. forces have access to the information they need to do their job.

The first approach requires only keeping faith that the existing constellation of UHF Follow On satellites will remain healthy until the next-generation Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) comes on line. The second will require an investment of perhaps a few hundred million dollars to plug the gap, either with an interim satellite or with capacity leased from the commercial sector.

The choice is more difficult than it looks. With all of the U.S. military services bracing for substantial cuts in procurement funding starting in 2007, making budgetary room for a satellite-capacity procurement that has not been factored into long-term plans could prove very disruptive to other programs. In such an environment there might be a temptation among top service officials to hold their breath and hope that the existing constellation does not suffer any unforeseen attrition and that the MUOS program does not run into the schedule problems that have afflicted just about every other major U.S. space procurement program in recent years.

But senior U.S. military officials have been emphatic for the last decade that more, not less, bandwidth is absolutely essential to the conduct of modern-day warfare, and they also have consistently underestimated how fast the demand is growing. If the axiom that there can never be enough bandwidth is in fact true — and all available evidence including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq suggests that it is — then it logically follows that faith simply is not a good enough solution.

Not only does the UHF Follow On system enable the Navy’s ships deployed across the globe to stay connected, it also provides critical communications to mobile ground forces operating in remote areas. Its narrowband signals can penetrate dense vegetation and urban canyons. For these forces, satellite bandwidth is almost as critical as the air that they breathe.

The Navy needs to make averting a gap in UHF Follow On coverage a top priority. And funding this priority should not come at the expense of the MUOS system, now set to enter a critical phase of development. To raid the MUOS budget to shore up the predecessor system — based on an unwritten yet often-assumed principle that space programs somehow must cover one another’s shortfalls — will serve only to kick the problem down the road and drive up the cost of the newer satellites.

However, the first step toward resolution is not for the Navy to make but rather Congress. The House version of the defense appropriations bill for 2006 cuts $100 million from the Navy’s $470 million request for the MUOS program. Senate appropriators, who fully funded the program in their version of the legislation, must hold the line on that position in negotiating the final bill with their House counterparts. If MUOS is delayed significantly, an inevitable consequence of the cut proposed by the House, the chance that U.S. forces will face a dire shortage in narrowband satellite capacity in the next decade will go from a possibility to a strong probability.

The next move is up to the Navy. Those who view information as the difference-maker in modern warfare — arguably more so than a few more ships or combat aircraft — must work to forge a consensus among service brass that a situation in which U.S. forces face a major shortfall in satellite capacity is unacceptable.

The Navy already is considering a number of options to address the potential problem, including competitively procuring a gap-filler satellite and leasing additional capacity from Inmarsat, the global maritime satellite services provider. While accelerating the MUOS program is not an option, there is the possibility of launching a MUOS platform equipped only with a legacy payload.

Each option has its pros and cons, and it will take a careful and thorough analysis to determine which one makes the most sense. But given the likely costs involved, the Navy might want to widen its assessment to consider other approaches, such as collaboration with the United States’ NATO allies — Italy’s Sicral military communications satellites incorporate UHF capacity, for example — and government-industry joint ventures. These additional options may or may not be feasible, but they at least deserve a look.

Thankfully, the Navy appears to have a window of opportunity, albeit one that will close fast, to take steps to avert a narrowband communications gap. If service officials opt instead to roll the dice, and lose, the consequences could be serious, and nobody will be able to say they did not see it coming.