Part 2: Do previous successes establish a foundation for government leveraging of commercial capabilities?

Over the last generation, the
national security community has re-examined its mix of domestic and foreign military bases. In contrast to the post-World War II era, current American doctrine favors agile, rapidly deployed force structures over permanent basing of troops and their equipment in overseas garrisons. At home, economic and political imperatives during the same period resulted in the BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) process to reduce military-owned and -encamped real estate and to bring military domestic base structures in line with modern needs.

In national security space, a similar debate is under way. The “ownership” of a space asset, unlike real estate on Earth, is limited to the functional lifetime of an individual space system, or, in satellite communications, the duration and conditions of an authorization to operate space hardware at specific orbital locations and within certain frequency ranges.

As more nations have announced their desire for national space programs, as the competition for orbital slots with desirable frequency allocations intensifies and the demand for space-based broadband explodes, there are some government requirements that can be fulfilled by shared orbital assets, rather than dedicated, often hard-to-afford government-owned and -operated space systems.

The core of the debate centers on dedicated government assets versus capabilities provided by commercial or multinational assets. For the
military, the debate over the owned and controlled assets, versus capabilities created in collaboration with allied countries or with the commercial space industry, has ebbed and flowed with the federal budget, and with the requirements of the deployed warfighter.

In 1972, for example, the U.S. Navy contacted Comsat, the commercial
signatory to Intelsat, with an urgent request for solutions to provide ultra high frequency (UHF) satellite services to the fleet during the period between the end of life of the first-generation Tacsat satellites, and the new U.S. Navy Fleet Satellite Communications (FltSat) system. Since UHF was a frequency band devoted to government use, Comsat explored potential configurations of commercial and government services that would justify a new satellite system. At the time, the Navy could only afford to commit to two years of service on a proposed three-satellite “commercial augmentation” fleet of new satellites – the last of that satellite fleet, MariSat-3, recently celebrated its 30th year of service to the

The key factor was a willingness of the Navy to commit to the MariSat service, for at least a minimum period of time, without necessarily owning the MariSat assets. The Navy’s requirements could neither justify nor consume the total aggregate capacity of an entire satellite system, but they were sufficient to form the baseline, or anchor tenancy, on which a multiuse satellite system could be built.

The Navy made a pragmatic decision in its approach to critical UHF satellite services: it could not afford to own the asset that provided its service, but it could use a commercial approach to obtaining those services. The Navy’s firm requirement established a baseline need for support; its willingness to work with industry created a viable means for meeting that requirement within available funds; the Navy’s award of a contract affirmed its commitment and permitted those funds to be expended with the essential result that the Navy could present a cogent, compelling, credible case that permitted it to sustain the necessary funding during the annual federal budget process. This provided the Navy with reliable and guaranteed commercial capacity, and it provided Comsat with sufficient contractual commitment to dedicate the necessary resources to get the satellite manufactured, on orbit and operating.

The Navy’s willingness to explore commercial-government cooperation in space with MariSat was followed by the highly successful Leased Satellite System, or LeaSat, program. While the MariSat system provided both commercial and government maritime satellite services, LeaSat would refine the model: LeaSat was designed, built and operated by commercial industry, but for the exclusive provision of government communications services. In 1978, the Navy awarded the LeaSat contract award to Hughes Communication Services Inc. to provide worldwide communications satellite service to the Department of Defense for at least five years at each of four orbital locations.

The LeaSat satellites would be commercially owned and operated, providing UHF and SHF service exclusively to the government through a long-term lease. The lease established that the
military would pay for the use of communications channels aboard each spacecraft, with upfront funding of most, but not all, of the cost to build and launch the spacecraft. Five LeaSat satellites were built, including a spare; the first was placed on orbit in 1984. One satellite, LeaSat F4, failed in orbit and was replaced by the spare LeaSat F5, which continues in service to this day. The LeaSat model worked: the efficiencies of commercial industry provided the government with rapid and cost efficient capability, and industry gained a long-term partner for a dedicated satellite system.

This partnership – a commitment by industry to providing a capability, and a commitment by the DoD to a stable funding baseline – is part and parcel to the government-industry relationship in many areas outside satellite communications, including the Global Information GridBandwidth Expansion, or GIG-BE program, and Military Sealift Command’s use of merchant vessels.

Without a guarantee of a given capability, the DoD is understandably reluctant to rely on commercial industry. Similarly, without a commitment to stable funding from the government, commercial industry can rarely justify building a satellite with a focus to meet DoD’s capacity and coverage needs. LeaSat and MariSat were based on a recognition of the scale and speed of commercial development in space.

Today, the number of commercial geosynchronous communications satellites in operation exceeds 275 spacecraft. An additional 15 to 25 satellites are launched into orbit each year. In contrast, the
military has approximately 23 communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit. With LeaSat and MariSat, the Navy leveraged commercial industry to obtain the capacity it needed quickly and was able to manage the availability of that capacity on a long-term basis through consistent, enduring commercial leasing contracts.

The core challenge is the development of the necessary commitment to a sustained partnership on the part of government and industry: For government, the commitment required is to obtain capability from the commercial satellite communications industry; for the satellite communications industry, the commitment required is to create and maintain the availability of capabilities suitable for military use.

The core requirement is a commitment by the
government to a given capability, and a commitment by industry to provide that capability. Since the first Gulf War, the military has leased commercial C- and Ku-band satellite communications services with the view that such services “augmented” military-owned capabilities, even as the capacity provided by these commercial capabilities came to exceed the capacity available from the military systems.

The last decade has seen several attempts at various collaborations and contractual relationships – the Managed Transponder Contract and the Defense Satellite Transmission ServicesGlobal (DSTS-G) Contract are two prime examples – that have largely been a mixture of success and struggle. While these vehicles have served both the government and industry, providing military forces with significant amounts of commercial satellite bandwidth and providing the satellite communications industry with military business, they have met with some heavy criticism in the past decade.

Government users have complained about the perceived lack of responsiveness and timeliness of the services, and industry representatives have lamented their lack of information and the government’s apparent inability to project the military’s needs accurately enough to justify inclusion of government needs when considering purchasing or launching additional satellites.

For the most part, there is no long-term partnership or commitment in the DSTS-G leased services contracts: the preponderance of leases awarded via DSTS-G are made as one-year commitments with options. As a result, the government is subject to the vicissitudes of a commercial market that views the
government (including military) customer as a marginal, unpredictable customer for bandwidth that the military needs to recurrently access.

In the absence of establishing an enduring, predictable relationship with the providers of commercial satellite communications bandwidth as a “core element” of its overall satellite communications infrastructure, but rather as an occasional “augmentation,” the government does not enjoy the economic or predictability advantages of partnerships such as those of the MariSat and LeaSat programs.

Just as the military carefully builds a strategic approach to military bases domestically and overseas, it is time for a more strategic approach to space assets. There is successful precedent in the MariSat and LeaSat programs. In the coming years, economic considerations in the military space budget will drive hard choices. The good news for policymakers is that ample evidence exists that a different approach will work.

Don Brown is vice president for hosted payloads at Intelsat General Corp., Bethesda, Md. Michael Moyles is an Air Force major, researching commercial/military communications satellite hybrids at the

. This is the second article in the five part series to be published in Space News this summer. Each will explore the factors influencing the relationship between the military and commercial satellite providers and suggest potential doctrines intended to lead to a more complementary space policy for the next 50 years of development in space. Readers are encouraged to join the blog debate at