Report Urges U.S. To Extend ‘Assured Access’ to Commercial Satellites

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PARIS — The U.S. government should permit China to launch U.S.-built commercial satellites and force an overhaul of the U.S. Air Force’s relationship with its principal launch-services provider, United Launch Alliance (ULA), as part of a strategy to ensure long-term access to commercial satellite bandwidth, a U.S. think tank has concluded.

In a report issued July 26, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) says the U.S. policy of guaranteeing “assured access to space,” which has been interpreted to mean access for government-owned spacecraft, should be extended to commercial satellites.

The report, “National Security and the Commercial Space Sector,” stops short of offering clear policy proposals and for the most part is a synthesis of often differing opinions from the U.S. Defense Department, commercial launch-service providers and commercial satellite operators.

But the authors say their survey found a broad consensus that “commercial access to space is problematic.”

The U.S. military’s increasing reliance on commercial satellite bandwidth — more than 90 percent of U.S. military satellite bandwidth over Iraq and Afghanistan is from commercial satellites, by some accounts — is well established and shows no signs of reversing.

Because of that, the report says, U.S. government policies should all move in the direction of ensuring maximum availability of commercial satellite launch capacity, which exists today but could be curtailed in the future.

The world’s biggest commercial satellite fleet operators and the main commercial launch service providers disagree over whether there is a problem in the fact that International Launch Services (ILS) of Reston, Va., and Europe’s Arianespace consortium of Evry, France, dominate the market.

The CSIS report includes passages that will please neither of these two audiences. Nor will it comfort ULA — a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin — and ULA’s U.S. Air Force customer.

The report notes that all the major providers of commercial satellite bandwidth today are non-U.S. companies that often serve a U.S. clientele, including the U.S. government. While the governments of Luxembourg, France and Canada — home to Intelsat, SES, Eutelsat and Telesat — have done nothing to inhibit U.S. government use of these companies’ satellites, the mere fact of their being foreign, and of the U.S. government’s dependence on them, should be viewed as a risk factor, CSIS says.

“Dependence translates to vulnerability if access to these vital services can be interrupted,” the report says.

Phillip L. Spector, Intelsat executive vice president and general counsel, rejected that analysis.

“Intelsat has been providing services to the U.S. military for 40 years,” Spector said in a July 27 interview. “While we have changed ownership, we have always been at the top a foreign company, while we have created a subsidiary [Intelsat General Corp.] that deals directly with the U.S. government.”

The report picks up on arguments made by Intelsat, SES and Eutelsat, among other satellite owners, that the market dominance of ILS and Arianespace has created a de facto duopoly that could raise prices. If one of these rockets were to fail, the entire industry could suffer, these satellite operators say.

An ILS official said July 27 that recent studies have shown that commercial launch prices have actually decreased over the past 10 years and that the recent rise in prices was after a period in which commercial prices dipped to levels that were not sustainable.

Clay Mowry, president of Arianespace Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of Arianespace, said July 28: “Arianespace continues to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure and billions of dollars in large bulk buys of Ariane 5 and Soyuz launch vehicles. We shoulder significant risk. Arianespace has made these financial commitments to ensure that we can more than meet the market demand for commercial launches from our secure facilities in NATO territory.”

The CSIS study concedes that there have been no satellite security concerns at ILS’s Russian-run spaceport in Kazakhstan, or at France’s Guiana Space Center launch base, in recent years. But it says placing U.S. military payloads on commercial satellites could change that.

“Putting sensitive military, civil or intelligence payloads on commercial satellites might increase the potential for intrusion simply because hosted payloads are higher-value targets and require greater scrutiny,” the report says.

Spector said Intelsat, which has been perhaps the most active commercial satellite operator in soliciting hosted payloads from U.S. government agencies, has no concerns about security issues at the European and Russian launch sites.

Intelsat, SES and Telesat, joined by EchoStar of Englewood, Colo., in mid-2009 announced a coalition whose goal was to create more commercial launch opportunities by opening the market to China’s Long March vehicle and by providing incentives for ULA to make Delta and, especially, Atlas rockets available for commercial launch.

The CSIS report seems to lean in the same direction, saying the U.S. prohibition on launching satellites from China appears to have harmed the U.S. industrial base and closed off a commercial-launch avenue while providing no compelling benefit to U.S. national security.

The report details many factors that have kept Atlas and Delta rockets, whose reliability is beyond dispute, mainly out of the commercial launch business. These include U.S. Air Force policies that lock up ULA’s manifests, leaving little room for commercial customers even when the government satellite-delivery delays leave ULA launch pads idle for months at a time.

CSIS questions whether the U.S. Air Force or ULA have any incentive to seek commercial launch business given their relationship. For the Air Force, ULA is a captive provider of reliable rockets funded by the U.S. taxpayer. For ULA, the Air Force is a well-heeled customer willing to pay 40 percent or more than a commercial customer.

The report suggests that one way or another, the ULA-Air Force relationship needs to be revamped to enable these rocket systems to compete commercially.