The United States and Australia have expanded their partnership in military satellite communications with a recent agreement to share narrowband, or UHF, capacity, once again demonstrating the possibilities that open up when allies think creatively about how they can work together in space. The deal follows a ground-breaking 2007 agreement under which Australia will fund a sixth U.S. Air Force Wideband Global Satcom satellite in return for access to the full constellation.
What’s different about the UHF arrangement is that it involves both government- and privately owned satellites. Australia will have access to the U.S. Navy’s planned Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), slated to begin launching in late 2011; the U.S. military will have access to a UHF transponder that Australia is leasing aboard a satellite to be owned and operated by Intelsat. Originally the Australian Defence Force agreed to lease half of the planned UHF capacity aboard Intelsat’s IS 22 satellite, slated to launch in early 2012. It has now exercised an option to lease the full UHF capacity over the expected 15-year life of the satellite, a contract modification that should help accommodate U.S. military needs in the Indian Ocean region.
Australia, which has no satellite industry to speak of, has nonetheless managed to secure access to world-class capabilities not only via arrangements with the United States, a close ally, but also by leveraging private-sector investment. The United States, which effectively paces the rest of the world in satellite technology, has taken a step toward mitigating a potential gap in narrowband capacity without a major expenditure of the Pentagon’s increasingly limited cash resources.
Currently the Navy relies on the UHF Follow-On constellation for narrowband links, which provide communications to ships at sea as well as to forces deployed in remote or hard-to-reach locations such as urban canyons or beneath forest canopies. But that constellation is aging, and industry sources say its Boeing 601 model satellites are prone to sudden failure due to the tin whiskers phenomenon. Tin whiskers are hair-like crystalline growths that sprout from electronic circuit boards and can cause disabling short circuits. This problem occurred on several Boeing 601-model satellites built during the 1990s for commercial customers.
Delays to the MUOS program — those satellites originally were slated to begin launching in 2010 — coupled with uncertainty about the longevity of the UHF Follow-On satellites have raised fears of a gap in narrowband coverage in the next few years. The deal with Australia might not be enough to close any such gap, even if the IS 22 and MUOS programs launch on current schedules, but — depending on the details — it should at least afford the Navy a bit more flexibility in dealing with the problem. It could, for example, allow the Navy to concentrate more bandwidth in areas where it is most likely to be needed.
U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, characterized the U.S.-Australian agreement as “more the culmination of a start, rather than an end, of a process.” He said this is the type of thing the United States should be doing with other allies as well.
Gen. Cartwright hit the nail on the head. The downturn in U.S. military space spending is roughly coinciding, fortunately, with a broad expansion in the space capabilities of U.S. allies, particularly in Europe. Meanwhile, the commercial satellite sector continues to thrive despite continued global economic troubles. In this environment there should be a wealth of new opportunities for partnerships that maximize return on investment for all concerned, and few, if any, excuses for not pursuing them.