To predict the future of military satellite communications, ‘follow the terminals’

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The Pentagon identified a huge hurdle that could slow down efforts to buy commercial satcom: Most of its terminals are outdated and can't connect to modern commercial satellites.

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has said for years that it needs more satellite capacity for global communications, video conferencing, drone live streaming and other activities that consume lots of bandwidth.

An 18-month-long study on how best to acquire that capacity — from the private sector, from government-owned satellites or a mix of the two — was just completed this week. One of the conclusions is that there are “opportunities to expand the use of commercial” communications satellites, said Norman Yarbrough, one of the Pentagon officials overseeing the congressionally mandated study.

Statements like this frustrate satellite operators. The industry’s high-powered satellites have more than enough capability to offer to the military at bargain prices. A new crop of internet-beaming mega constellations that companies expect to start launching in a few years will bring more choices and lower prices to the market.

The Pentagon’s study, known as an “analysis of alternatives,” surveyed the entire industry and laid out options for how the military could benefit from the innovations in the private sector. To the chagrin of satellite operators, the Pentagon identified a huge hurdle that could slow down future efforts to buy commercial satcom: most military terminals that give users access to satellites are not compatible with modern satcom technology.

Because of the cost and the complexity of upgrading military equipment, it could take decades to update or replace all 17,000 wideband satcom terminals currently in the Defense Department’s inventory.

“It’s not just about space, it’s about the terminals,” Yarbrough told the 2018 MilSatCom conference in Arlington, Virginia.

For wideband communications, the Pentagon expects to rely primarily on four frequency bands: Ka, Ku, C and X. The Air Force is spending $10 million to develop a “flexible modem interface” that would connect existing terminals to commercial networks and military satellites. The modem upgrade, if successful, would provide seamless multi-band connectivity like a cellphone service.

Major operators that supply satellite bandwidth to the military include ViaSat, Inmarsat, Intelsat, SES and EchoStar. The military also uses its own Wideband Global SATCOM satellites, known as WGS.

The flexible modem fix would not be enough, however. Many of the military’s radios are too old to upgrade and there is no plan or funds to replace them in the near future.

Yarbrough said there are about 150 program managers who oversee terminals across the Defense Department. They range from small handsets to huge radios installed on ships or aircraft that cost tens of millions of dollars each. “Synchronizing decisions is part of the challenge.”

Some offices already have started to refurbish satellite terminals. “Some recaps will last well into the 2030s,” Yarbrough said. “We have to think about the strategy.” One of the priorities is resiliency, or the ability to switch bands from a single terminal if there is a disruption of service.

Program managers face tough decisions, he said. “Antennas, frequency bands and power are key drivers.” Another concern is the time it would take to rebuild or replace terminals. Commanders would rather have an old system than none. “It’s a readiness issue for the military,” he said. Even if terminals were bought ready made from the open market, they would have to be tested and certified for military use.

Modular terminals
Inmarsat’s senior vice president for government services Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch has followed the Pentagon’s wideband study since day one. Like other executives, she said she was encouraged by the Pentagon’s push to use commercial services and by recent congressional actions to fund a commercial satcom program in the Air Force’s budget. The larger message from the study is that “commercial is really hard, and you have to follow the terminals,” Cowen-Hirsch told SpaceNews.

“Terminals are a critical component to access the space capability,” she said. The industry has made huge investments in modular terminals to replace vertically integrated systems, she added. “This drives to an integrated architecture,” which is what the industry hopes the Pentagon will have one day.

Because most military terminals are highly customized and difficult to upgrade, their operating costs are high, accounting for 70 percent of what the military spends on satellite communications, according to an industry source. By comparison, terminals make up about 10 percent of the cost of buying commercial services.

In last year’s National Defense Authorization Act, Congress ordered the Defense Information Systems Agency to turn over the responsibility for buying commercial satcom services to the Air Force Space Command. The transfer will be completed by December.

“That’s only first step,” said Brian Temple, the Defense Department’s acting deputy chief information officer.

“The next step is to integrate the requirements of commercial and military satcom,” he told the MilSatCom conference. “Do we buy into a constellation? Do we buy a transponder? How do we mix that with spectrum leases? That’s the hard part.”

He agreed terminals have long been a problem area. The military continues to operate legacy terminals that don’t take advantage of the capabilities of newer satellites, he said. The Navy launched five new MUOS narrowband communications satellites, and most ships at sea can’t access them due to a lack of terminals. There are 20 new GPS satellites in orbit that operate the more secure military signal, and “still no user equipment,” Teeple said. “It’s an indictment on our system.”

Terminals are a “major barrier to us adopting space technologies,” he said. “If we don’t have user equipment, what’s the point in buying satellites?”

It can take up to five years to upgrade a military aircraft’s satcom terminals, he said. “We need more software defined radios that can be upgraded without pulling them out the plane or the ship. We need flexibility on the user equipment side.”

A case in point are the Air Force Reaper drones that operate the Ku band. “If somebody offers a Ka service because you’re being jammed in Ku, I can’t use it. We need terminals that can respond.”

The ideal satcom device would have a roaming capability to use whichever provider in the area is available, Teeple said. The wideband study characterized terminals as a “limiting factor.” He suggested the Pentagon should do a separate study focused on terminals. “Yes, the technology has come along. We already have software defined radio. But we have to temper our enthusiasm.” With 17,000 wideband terminals across 600 programs, one immediate step might be consolidation.