This year marks the 50th anniversary of Project SCORE, the first American satellite to relay communications from space. Project SCORE’s primary mission objective was to show that an Atlas missile could put a payload into orbit. Its secondary objective was to demonstrate that a communications relay could be operated in orbit. The latter objective caused SCORE to achieve global fame when it was used to send a Christmas greeting to the world from U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. SCORE was a pathfinder, but also an example of the complicated relationship between military and civil space objectives.
Like Project SCORE, government and commercial space interests have developed in complementary but largely separate paths over the last 50 years. Government investment in space technology laid the groundwork for a multibillion-dollar satellite industry. Over the past 50 years, both industry and government have invested heavily in satellite fleets, which, on one hand, bring media to millions and, on the other, provide secure transport of critical national security information to any point on the globe.
Beginning with the First Gulf War, commercial communications satellites started to play a substantial role in government communications, evolving from a provider of occasional leased capacity to a role providing 80 percent of the
military’s wideband satellite communications capacity during the wars in
With the Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) System commencing service this year, and with future WGS launches on the horizon, the balance between government- owned and -operated and commercially leased communications satellites will change again.
This brings to mind an important question: What is the appropriate balance between government and commercial satellite communications for the military in an age when ubiquitous global communications are central to national security?
It also is the perfect time to begin rethinking the relationship between the
military and commercial satellite service providers and answer another question: What must be military about military space communications?
There is a long and robust history of collaboration between the commercial and government satellite communications sectors. It started with SCORE, which was followed in the early to mid-1960s by the Courier and Syncom programs and in the 1970s by Marisat. From those early partnerships to the present day, there always have been advocates for commercializing more of military space communications transport – as well as proponents for removing all military communications from commercially leased satellites. However, both history and current operations make it fairly clear that the solution to meeting defense requirements lies somewhere in between these two extremes.
Throughout the industry – whether it is transportation, satellite or terrestrial communications, even imagery – there are areas where industry excels, and areas where the military excels. Similarly, there are certain applications that, for national security or other reasons, simply must be owned and operated by the government, and others that lend themselves well to military-commercial collaboration.
As an analogue, the military generally does not build its own computers – commercial industry makes computers that are adequate for the vast majority of military applications. The question is, does a specific application absolutely have to be military? If not, then a commercially available computer is likely sufficient.
Similarly, the commercial airline industry is fairly proficient at transporting people and cargo. Rather than design and build an aircraft for carrying fuel, we can take a DC- 10, B-707 or B767/A330 and modify it to carry fuel instead of people – the KC-10, KC-135 and now the KC-35. Again, there still are applications (fighters and bombers are obvious examples) where it simply makes sense for the military to build its own aircraft, usually due to uniquely military needs or lack of sufficient commercial demand. The key is to ask the same question – does a specific aircraft’s function absolutely have to be military? If not, then perhaps a commercially available aircraft, or a modification of it, is sufficient.
There is another analogue in broadband communications: fiber. The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) does not lay undersea fiber optic cable for transcontinental broadband communications; nor does it own the majority of the physical fiber infrastructure it uses for broadband communications. The $877 million Global Information Grid-Bandwidth Expansion (GIG-BE) program lays fiber paths on military bases, but has multi year agreements off base to provide multiple diverse paths on primarily commercial fiber around the world.
DISA has purchased “dark fiber,” long- term rights to unutilized fiber capacity. Essentially, GIG-BE uses mostly commercial fiber, but provides military-owned and -operated “Service Delivery Node” equipment and network management infrastructure to manage the interconnects from the various fiber paths to ensure that the military’s service requirements are met.
Similarly, the commercial satellite industry is proficient at moving vast amounts of information around the world in fairly rapid fashion – video, data or voice. The infrastructure already exists in all three segments: space, ground and control. Rather than design and build a satellite (or an entire architecture) for moving information, the Defense Department could take a commercial satellite and modify it – or add to it, or lease it – to move military information rather than radio, television or other common commercial uses. The question is the same: Does the application absolutely have to be military?
The key to success seems to be to determine what infrastructure already exists and what functions commercial industry performs especially well, then ask whether it makes sense to rebuild that same infrastructure or duplicate that function for exclusive military use.
In some cases, such as emergency messaging or nuclear command and control, exclusively military communications networks and usage makes sense. In other areas – including classified and unclassified voice, data and video – it may make sense to establish close partnerships with commercial industry, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel or rebuild a similar network that performs the same basic functions as the commercial equivalent.
The truth is, only a very small percentage of military communications must be on nuclear-hardened communications channels – and few would dispute that nuclear command and control communications should remain exclusively the realm of milsatcom. The rest, including the vast majority of the DoD’s satellite communications requirements, is open for healthy debate.
Must military information traverse exclusively military satellites? Or, can it travel on commercial satellite networks, much in the way that the vast majority of our terrestrial communications travel commercial terrestrial networks? If commercial computers, aircraft and fiber are sufficient for many military applications, is it such a stretch to consider that commercial satellites might be entirely adequate for many military applications as well? This debate, and this entire approach, carries with it several significant advantages – and some challenges – which will be discussed in forthcoming commentaries.
I.D. Brown is vice president for hosted payloads at General Corp., Bethesda,
Michael W. Moyles is an Air Force major researching communications satellite hybrids at the
. This is the first in a series of articles 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 www.rethinkingtherelationship.com