Profile: Reducing Reliance on Commercial Satcom

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  Space News Business

Profile: Reducing Reliance on Commercial Satcom

By JEREMY SINGER
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 29 March 2007
04:04 pm ET


U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Steven W. Boutelle

U.S. Army Chief Information Officer, U.S. Army

W hile advocates for the commercial satellite communications industry have happily touted the Pentagon’s heavy reliance on their services during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Steven W. Boutelle sees cause for concern. Boutelle is a firm believer that commercial services have their place in providing vital communications links to U.S. troops, but he worries that those services are more vulnerable to interruption than the Pentagon’s own satellite fleet.

Boutelle has held a variety of senior-level positions overseeing the Army’s use of communications networks. Prior to becoming the Army’s chief information officer in 2003, he served as the director for information operations for networks and space in the office of the Army’s chief information officer from 2001 to 2003. He served from 1997 to 2001 as the Army’s program executive officer for command, control and communications systems.

Boutelle’s work-related travels have taken him to places like India, where he sought answers to questions about why so much high-tech work has been outsourced there in recent years.

Boutelle talked about his views on satellite communications issues recently with Space News staff writer Jeremy Singer.


Why are you so concerned that 80 percent of the satellite communications used by the U.S. military comes from commercial services?

I was briefed recently that in Southwest Asia, commercial services represent 88 percent of our satellite bandwidth. Commercial satcom is at the discretion of the carriers. They’re multi-national. Some of them are U.S. carriers, and some are out of the Middle East. Some could be influenced by the nations that they’re licensed in.

As long as we maintain the status quo, that’s okay, but if there comes a time of friction with the nation or owner of the service, your access could be denied.

Second, commercial satellites are not as capable as military satellites at resisting jamming and other types of intentional interference. There is also the evolving nuclear threat to consider. A nuclear test could create atmospheric scintillation that could cause a major disruption in communications capability. Electromagnetic pulse explosions could also pose a significant threat.

How can the U.S. Department of Defense change this ratio in an affordable manner?

Launching the Wideband Global satellites will help. The first launch of those satellites, which has been delayed for several years, will take place this summer. That will give us a massive increase in capability, and allow us to move some things off of commercial, but you need three satellites to cover most of the world. Once those satellites are launched, that will put us in a much better situation. Wideband Global offers huge bandwidth, and will help reduce our spending on commercial services.

What about your concerns regarding operating through a nuclear threat?

The launch of the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (EHF) satellites won’t be able to solve that issue, given the huge amount of bandwidth coming from commercial services today. It will be a great help, but we won’t have the large amount of protected communications that we need until the Transformational Satellite Communications System is launched at some point in the next decade.

How can the Army
take better advantage of existing or planned military communication
satellites?

The Army erred in not modifying its Single Channel Anti-Jam Man-portable terminals to work with the Advanced EHF satellites, which would allow more troops to use those satellites. The cost of doing so is small. I’m trying to get the Army to revisit that decision.

The Army also is doing a lot to find ways to better conserve bandwidth. Using Internet Protocol for communications can drive up bandwidth efficiency from four- to 13-fold.

What is an example of an area where you feel that commercial communications satellites can play an appropriate role?

I’m excited about capabilities like Inmarsat‘s Broadband Global Area Network. Inmarsat is helping fill an important niche. Our existing UHF constellation is degrading and oversaturated, and the replacement, the Mobile User Objective System, does not begin launching until 2010. We won’t have a full Mobile User Objective System constellation until around 2014. So Inmarsat provides an important service for mobile forces.

We could also transmit a huge amount of bandwidth from point A to point B through Xtar’s services. By tweaking our X-band terminals and adding a new modem, we could get a 10-fold increase in capability, but we have not made the investment yet to do so.

Should aircraft play a larger role in providing communications to troops on the battlefield than they do today?

Yes. There are a variety of studies going on within the Pentagon that are conducted by organizations like the Director of Defense Research and Engineering and the service’s science boards, to address this issue. There are a number of unmanned aerial vehicles that could play a role here, like Global Hawk, Predator and Hunter. The services need to reach a consensus on how to proceed forward. I think it’s time to lock down an approach to using airborne platforms for communications.

Were you disappointed to see the Missile Defense Agency cancel the High Altitude Airship program, which would have
demonstrated an airborne platform capable of loitering over the battlefield for months at a time at an altitude near space?

I’m disappointed that we haven’t made more progress on the high altitude, long loiter capability. I think we need to get there. It would be a significant boost to our capabilities. However, the High Altitude Airship turned out to be more difficult and more expensive than initially envisioned.

As we put these vehicles up for long periods, the exposure to the sun and other elements is significantly damaging, and we haven’t solved those problems. I’d like to see more investment in this area, but unless the mission is assigned to a service or a Pentagon organization like the Missile Defense Agency, we’ll flounder.

Should the Army handle the near space mission?

I don’t see it as being related to the Army’s core mission — the Army doesn’t typically operate up there, but that decision is up to a higher authority.

Some people have labeled the Army and Navy as freeloaders due to the fact that the Air Force funds most space systems, but the other services are the heaviest users. Is this fair?

The Air Force is the executive agent for space, and builds the satellites, just like the Army is the executive agent for water and ground transportation. When the Marines move, the Army provides the trucks. When the Air Force needs water, the Army provides the water. Title 10 of U.S. code distributes these executive agent responsibilities across the services fairly.

Why did you visit India recently?

Our relationship with India is very important. They are an emerging player in the world environment. The Indian military was very interested in how we train our soldiers, and form partnerships between the government and industry. While there, I visited the local branches of companies like Microsoft and Cisco to get a better understanding of what is outsourced to India and why. It’s not always only about saving dollars. They have a very well-educated work force that can provide excellent value and speed to market for products.