Source of DoD Commercial Bandwidth Funds is Drying Up

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WASHINGTON — With a primary source of funding for commercial satellite capacity drying up, the U.S. Department of Defense must find an alternative means to feed the tremendous appetite for bandwidth generated by unmanned aircraft, according to a U.S. Air Force official.

For the past decade or so, the Pentagon has relied heavily on Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) accounts funded by wartime supplemental appropriations bills to pay for commercial satellite services. But the Pentagon likely will not be able meet the demand for commercial satellite bandwidth with OCO funding in the months and years ahead, said Air Force Col. Michael Lakos, the service’s military satellite communications lead.

Speaking at the Satellite 2012 conference here organized by Access Intelligence LLC, Lakos pleaded with satellite industry executives to come up with cheaper ways of providing bandwidth that is critical to a growing number of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) applications. “There is not a lot of money to put those into the service budgets because those are being shrunk,” he said.

The Air Force has been wrestling with the funding problem internally, Lakos said. “At the same time, we are going to have to leverage you folks from industry to help us solve that problem, but again, trying to do it better but cheaper at the same time,” he said.

Bandwidth requirements for UAV operations have increased since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq late last year, according to Ed Spitler, vice president of managed network services for Artel LLC, based in Reston, Va. Artel provides satellites network solutions to U.S. military customers.

Industry officials have maintained that the military’s demand for commercial bandwidth will not decline as its forces withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan because the draw-downs will increase its reliance on bandwidth-hungry UAVs. However, some satellite operators, such as Intelsat, have reported softening Pentagon demand in recent months.

There is little question, however, that the Pentagon’s reliance on UAVs is growing. The Defense Department’s 2013 budget request allocates nearly $2 billion to the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper UAV programs, a sum that covers procurement of 43 aircraft and related activities, according to budget documents.

The Pentagon has a goal of being able to operate 65 UAV combat air patrols simultaneously by 2013. Some of these patrols require more than one UAV, Air Force officials say.

Andrew Ruszkowski, vice president of global sales and marketing for Rockville, Md.-based Xtar LLC, which markets X-band satellite capacity to government users, said that as UAV sensors and missions become more specialized, the need for bandwidth will increase. Industry has done a great job to date of meeting the Pentagon’s demand, but its ability to do so over the long haul is in doubt, in part because satellite capacity in the desired frequency bands is not always going to be available where and when it is needed, he said.

Ruszkowski said the government should equip its UAVs to be able to transmit data in multiple frequency bands. This would give the Pentagon more options to choose from, he said, adding that some frequency bands are better suited than others to adverse weather conditions. Thunderstorms, for example, can degrade Ka-band transmissions.

Today, most UAVs are equipped to transmit in the heavily used Ku-band. But commercial satellite operators are increasingly expanding into the Ka-band, and the Air Force is deploying a new fleet of Wideband Global Satcom communications satellites that operate in both Ka- and X-band frequencies.

Andy Beegan, chief technology officer for Inmarsat Government Services here, agreed that future UAVs should be designed with an ability to utilize multiple frequency bands. Inmarsat operates a fleet of L-band satellites and is planning in the coming years to deploy a Ka-band system.

Lakos said the Defense Department also is wrestling with the issue of which major military command should take the lead in making sure UAV plans take into account trends in the commercial satellite telecommunications industry. Air Force Space Command oversees core military space capabilities but Air Combat Command owns most of the service’s UAV fleet, he said.

 

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