Troop Drawdown Won’t Crimp Bandwidth Demand, Officials Say

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LONDON — The sharp drawdown of U.S. and allied troops from Iraq and Afghanistan is unlikely to put any lasting downward pressure on demand for satellite bandwidth as “boots on the ground are replaced by eyes in the sky,” according to U.S. military and NATO officials and industry estimates.

U.S. Air Force Col. Michael Lakos, milsatcom capability team lead at U.S. Air Force Space Command, said bandwidth-hungry unmanned aerial vehicles providing full-motion video are not going to be set aside just because of the drop in U.S. troop strength in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is now an average of 65 combat air patrols per day of unmanned aircraft run by U.S. forces worldwide. Until recently, he said, there were plans to increase that to 85 per day.

“I am not sure we’ll get to the higher level, but we’ll maintain that 65 we have today,” Lakos said Dec. 1 during the Global Milsatcom conference here organized by SMi Group. “There will be a need. You might see a decline from time to time. But with environmental crises and unexpected events, demand will remain. People have got used to full-motion video and they are not going to go without it.”

Malcolm Green, head of networking information infrastructure services at the 28-nation NATO C3 Agency, said NATO is still involved in the Balkans long after the military campaign there wound down, and still uses satellite bandwidth for communications with the region. He said he expects to see a similar pattern in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The communications traffic will change, and the volume of use of [unmanned aircraft] will almost certainly increase,” Green said. “Troop withdrawal does not mean operational withdrawal. We have 68 points of presence in Afghanistan today and we will be adding 35 more points of presence in a few months, mainly for mentoring Afghan security forces. Most, if not all, of this will be served by satellite. So the mission goes from [counterinsurgency] to mentoring. We go from boots on the ground to eyes in the sky.”

How much of this ongoing demand will be filled by commercial contracts, and how much by dedicated military satellites, remains unclear. Green said much of the future NATO function in Afghanistan does not need protected X-band satellite bandwidth.

Lakos said the U.S. Defense Department is still weighing how many Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) military X- and Ka-band satellites to purchase from Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif. That will in part determine how much U.S. defense authorities will need to rely on commercial bandwidth.

“There is no real decision yet on this,” Lakos said. “We have been debating whether to launch eight to maintain five, or to launch 10 to maintain six, or 12 for eight. We need to figure out how to factor in the possible arrival of new partners.” Australia has purchased one WGS satellite and in return will get access to the entire constellation, and five other nations are expected to decide by the end of this year whether to pool their resources to purchase a WGS spacecraft.

“There will probably be some reduction in some areas, but it will be limited in time as we demand more ISR,” or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information, said Tip Osterthaler, president of SES Government Solutions, the government services division of satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg.

Referring to U.S. military use of commercial satellite capacity during a Nov. 29 press briefing here, he said: “There will be puts and takes, but if you look at the 20-year history of the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East, demand for bandwidth has gone up steadily through that period.” For Iraq in particular, he said, “any dramatic reduction in bandwidth demand will be slow to materialize.”

Commercial satellite operators today provide about 90 percent of the U.S. government’s satellite bandwidth.

Whether this percentage will change as the U.S. military fields more of its own capacity and whether aggregate demand will dip with reduced operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are two of the most actively debated questions among government and commercial satellite providers.

The U.S. government remains the world’s largest buyer of commercial satellite capacity. At SES, government contracts in 2010 accounted for 200 million euros ($265 million) in revenue, or 12 percent of the company’s total. This figure includes military and civil government business.

According to SES figures, U.S. Defense Department-owned unmanned aerial vehicles flew 600,000 hours in 2009, up from 60,000 in 2006.