Military enthusiastic about commercial LEO satcom but wants proof that vendors can deliver
One of the headlines from the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference held in Washington in mid-October was the interest senior officials expressed in low-Earth orbit satellite constellations.
The Army is not ready to sign contracts with anyone quite yet, but it’s scoping the market. Program managers and buyers have heard the buzz about the LEO megaconstellations and want more information. A central question: How real is the promise of ultrafast broadband at a lower cost, and lower latency, than the current connectivity from geosynchronous satellites?
“The mode we’re in right now is that we’re just meeting with everyone,” Joseph Welch, deputy program executive officer for command, control and communications tactical, told SpaceNews.
Welch’s office, based at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, procures the Army’s tactical communications systems that soldiers use when deployed. He said commanders in the field are not happy with the current technology and the Army has decided that the path to a better-connected Army is through commercially available satellite and terrestrial services. A key concern is having large enough data pipes to support a deluge of information the military collects from space, ground and aerial sensors that needs to be analyzed quickly.
“We are highly reliant on geosynchronous satellites that are providing us relatively low bandwidth compared to everything else that exists in the commercial world, and at very high latency,” Welch said. “That creates problems. It affects our resilience. There are single points of failure in systems for which we don’t have backups in a lot of cases.”
Welch said LEO satellites indeed are drawing attention but the Army intends to buy a mix of LEO, MEO and GEO satcom services.
His office is watching what companies like SpaceX, OneWeb and Telesat are doing as they start building their constellations. “They’re all in varying stages of putting things up,” Welch said. “We have met with a number of vendors.”
Among the Army’s questions: When are the satellites being launched? When are terminals going to be available? Will providers field and maintain terminals, or do they expect a third party to do that?
User equipment is a major unknown, he said. Terminals need to be interoperable, Welch insisted. “I don’t want to get to a place where I need a commercial terminal and a military terminal. That’s not ‘best value’ to us.”
Welch cautioned the Army is not being naive about this. “There are challenges integrating this technology. With more options comes more complexity.”
The last thing the Army needs is to pile more gadgets onto its vehicles, for example. “We need to simplify the number of satellite transceivers that we can put on a vehicle so we don’t make it too heavy and too complex.”
The Army already is a customer of LEO mobile satcom provider Iridium. But there is no funding in the Army’s budget today to buy services from the yet-to-be-built LEO constellations. The plan is to use research and development funds to study their potential utility “to understand how real is this stuff, how effective it might be, and then put together our acquisition strategy,” said Welch. “They haven’t launched anything yet. So we’re keeping our options open.”
The military’s interest in LEO, meanwhile, has set off alarms in the GEO satellite industry. Operators for years have called on DoD to figure out a procurement strategy to take advantage of the industry’s massive high-throughput satellites. Executives say that should take precedence over figuring out how they will buy services from constellations that don’t even exist.
“DoD has yet to articulate its investment strategy for the satcom enterprise,” Skot Butler, president of Intelsat General, told SpaceNews. Air Force Space Command, which oversees satcom procurement for DoD, should “implement a program of record for satcom enterprise architecture development,” Butler said. “The future satcom enterprise architecture must include the ability for DoD users to roam across purpose-built and commercial satcom networks.”
Ken Peterman, president of government systems at Viasat, said surveys of military satcom users have shown over and over that they are not getting adequate connectivity in the field. Commercial operators have plenty of capacity at prices that are projected to fall. The problem is that DoD buyers are comfortable with the current approach of using military-owned satellites and leasing commercial bandwidth sporadically, when needed. The industry wants DoD to buy satcom as a managed service.
Better and faster commercial satcom technology is not getting to forces in the field because the procurement system stands in the way, said Peterman. Whether it’s LEO, MEO or GEO, the military won’t get the best products from the industry until it changes its acquisition process.
Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.
“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Oct. 21, 2019 issue.