Part 5: Finding a roadmap for the new paradigm of government and commercial space enterprise.
In this series, we have argued for a new paradigm in the balance between government and commercial satellite communications. Since the first Gulf War, commercial communications satellites have successfully played a substantial role in government communications, evolving from a provider of occasional leased capacity to providing 80 percent of the
military’s satellite communications capacity during the Afghan and
There are several key questions that must be answered for this important relationship between government and the satellite industry to grow to its full potential.
First, what must be military about military satellite communications?
In most applications – 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, positive control or other reasons, simply must be owned and operated by the military, and others that lend themselves well to commercial collaboration.
Few would dispute that nuclear command and control communications should remain exclusively the realm of the Department of Defense (DoD). But this only constitutes a very small subset of military satellite communications, or MilSatCom. The rest, including the vast majority of the DoD’s satellite communications requirement, is open for debate.
This leads to a second question: What space assets must be owned by the government to best serve the needs of the nation?
The “ownership” of a space asset, unlike real estate on Earth, is limited to the functional lifetime of a piece of space hardware or, in satellite communications, the duration and conditions of a license to operate space hardware at specific orbital locations and within certain frequency ranges.
In times of urgent need, the
government has turned to commercial industry to develop specialized space systems.
This has resulted in spectacular successes. In 1972, for example, the U.S. Navy contacted Comsat with an urgent request for solutions to provide UHF satellite services to the fleet during the period between the end of life of the first-generation TacSat satellites, and the new FLTSAT [U.S. Navy Fleet Satellite Communications] system. Comsat responded with a satellite configuration combining commercial and government requirements. The last of those satellites, Marisat-3, recently celebrated its 30th year of service to the
government, and the maritime satellite communications industry is now a critical component of global trade at sea.
Similarly, in 1978, the Navy awarded a contract for Leasat, a system designed, built and operated by commercial industry, but for the exclusive provision of government communications services. The government got rapid capability at a fraction of the expense of a government-managed satellite system; industry got a long-term partner for a dedicated satellite system.
In both cases, a key factor was the willingness of the Navy to commit to its use of Leasat and Marisat services, for a minimum period of time, without necessarily owning either system. This provided the Navy with reliable and guaranteed capacity when it could not support a dedicated military system, and it provided Comsat with sufficient contractual commitment – an anchor tenant – that allowed it to dedicate the necessary resources to get the satellite manufactured, on orbit and operating.
Such partnerships are a normal part of the government-industry relationship in most areas outside satellite communications.
Third, we examined perhaps the most important factor on the government side of the relationship – protection.
We live in a world full of threats to the
and its allies – and therefore, protecting our communications (both assets and content) is of paramount importance to the DoD. For its most critical communications, DoD has communications security requirements that go far above and beyond the needs of commercial customers. These requirements range
the need to protect links from hostile interference (jamming) – a concern shared with commercial customers – to DoD’s unique expectation for some communications to operate through or recover from a nuclear blast (survivability). Protection requirements have become integral elements of military satellite communications, and encompass the ability of the system to avoid or mitigate degradation, disruption or unauthorized use by an adversary (or, in some cases, just by the environment).
While commercial satellites lack many of the security enhancements incorporated into some military satellites, consideration of vulnerability, risk assessment and satellite protection is not entirely foreign to the commercial satellite industry. Many commercial satellites, and most of those supporting DoD requirements, provide some level of anti-jam and/or geolocation, as well as higher levels of encryption and information protection.
Industry also considers security by diversity to be an effective mitigation strategy against many threats. A good example of this security by diversity concept is the Internet. In most cases, disabling a single Internet router, switch, or hub, has almost no effect on the overall network – there are so many routers and so many diverse paths through which information can travel, the loss of any given node has minimal impact. In contrast, military satellite communications do not yet provide similar dynamic routing, so it cannot automatically find an alternate path once a given link is disabled or disrupted. Additionally, most DoD satellite networks use only four or five satellites to cover the globe, so jamming a single satellite could disable 20 to 25 percent of a given constellation – a tremendous incentive to an adversary with hostile intent.
Security by diversity also provides a unique solution for specialized military missions. Rather than placing all of its capability on four or five military satellites, the DoD could instead place payloads on multiple hosts. With this security concept, both the incentive to attack and the impact of an attack are significantly reduced.
The more nodes a network has, the better it is able to dynamically reroute traffic and recover from an attack or failure. The scale of the commercial satellite fleet provides a decisive advantage. Given the DoD’s needs for capacity and assured, timely exchange of information, it is clear that commercial satellite communications should be an integral part of the Global Information Grid.
Finally, although we are 50 years into the space age, the means of accessing space are still limited, and the high cost of launch drives the economics of all space enterprise. The great expense of access to geosynchronous orbit has resulted in the central fact of life for geosynchronous space operations today: both commercial and military geosynchronous satellites are launched with the same hardware configuration which they will have at the end of their operating life. The hardware and fuel you launch with is the hardware and fuel you live with for the entire mission life of your satellite. In short, most of the total life-cycle cost of a geosynchronous satellite is expended by the time the satellite arrives on orbit.
The shared impact of current space economics creates shared opportunities for government and industry.
Despite the high cost, global geosynchronous satellite operators must constantly launch satellites to replace aging satellite assets. Commercial operators are considering “hosting” new technology demonstrators aboard their geosynchronous spacecraft to reduce the risk of new technologies for government spacecraft, and to provide rapid on-orbit testing for systems which may later be included in dedicated government systems. Commercial operators get additional revenue early in a satellite’s mission for the hosted payload, provided that the “hosted” payloads have a limited impact on spacecraft life and resources for its core commercial mission.
The opportunity is clear, the motivations and benefits to industry and DoD are equally clear. The two sides need to move forward collaboratively to prudently leverage the strengths and opportunities they offer each other. The result will be a more robust, vigorous, innovative, responsive and adaptive suite of capabilities for military, civil, commercial and private customers.
Don Brown is vice president for hosted payloads at Intelsat General Corp. U.S. Air Force Maj. Michael Moyles is researching commercial/military communications satellite hybrids at the
. This is the fifth of a five-part series. Readers are encouraged to join the debate at www.rethinkingtherelationship.com
Part 1: “What is the appropriate balance between government and commercial space capabilities?” was published in Space News June 30.
Part 2: “Do previous successes establish a foundation for government leveraging of commercial capabilities?” was published in Space News Aug. 4.
Part 3: “
Assurance and Critical Vulnerabilities. How do government and industry protect their space assets and missions?” was published in Space News Aug. 25.
Part 4: How do government and industry deal with the cost of space access? was published in Space News Sept. 8.