— The decades-long partnership between the U.S. military and the commercial satellite industry – a partnership that fundamentally changed the way U.S. forces carry out their missions – faces new challenges that will alter the status quo and require a new working relationship, the head of one of the world’s largest commercial satellite operators told an industry and military audience Oct. 7.
David McGlade, the chief executive officer of Washington- and based Intelsat, said regional conflicts have expanded the military’s demand for capacity at the same time satellite service providers are experiencing an explosion in bandwidth demand caused by rapid economic growth in developing nations. McGlade was speaking at the Strategic Space & Defense Conference sponsored by the Space Foundation and Space News.
“Our partnership must adopt new strategies – with actions from both sectors – in order to continue to accomplish our mission,” McGlade said.
McGlade said satellites have become key to the way the military wages war today. Some applications, such as connectivity for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), are creating unprecedented demand for commercial satellite services, he said.
To ensure the military continues to have access to the commercial bandwidth it needs, McGlade said, three things are needed: A better understanding of the common challenges both sides face; new approaches to improve the security of space communications; and the identification of specific actions that will ensure commercial services are available when and where it might be needed.
McGlade noted that competition in the commercial marketplace makes it necessary to closely tailor the supply of satellite transponders to expected demand and said industry needs to have a much better feel for the military’s future needs.
McGlade also said military and commercial satellite operators have a shared need to better understand threats to their satellites, a concept known in military parlance as space situational awareness. He said each commercial satellite to be launched in the future should be considered a potential platform for sensors that would provide space situational awareness. “Rather than develop and launch dedicated assets to address this problem, the Air Force should consider launching low-cost sensors on every commercial satellite that is launched,” he said.
To make sure there is ample commercial communications capacity when forces need it, the Defense Department needs to revise how it plans for and buys satellite services, McGlade said. The military should help the commercial sector do its own planning by starting to budget for the satellite services it expects to need, he said, adding that better coordination also is needed for the deployment of future ground systems.
“With a long-term relationship in place, the commercial sector can offer DoD unique capabilities on its payloads, such as steerable and flexible beams that can be re-pointed to accommodate changing areas of interest,” McGlade said. “The military and commercial satellite operators have had a long and productive partnership, but we can make it stronger and better.”