WGS-7 on Delta 4
The WGS-7 Delta 4 Payload fairing at Decatur Production Ops. Credit: ULA

LONDON — U.S. Air Force satellite communications experts on Nov. 9 deployed to London to persuade an international audience that the U.S. Defense Department, despite a painful slowness, is making progress on bringing international partners into the design and operation of military telecommunications satellites.

Deanna Ryals, chief of the international military satellite communication division at the U.S. Air Force’s MilSatCom Systems Directorate, said the U.S. Defense Department fully understands that when it says it wants “resilience” as a feature in its assets, international partnerships are part of the equation.

Ryals: Military + commercial + allies = improved resilience

Addressing the Global Milsatcom conference here organized by SMi Group, Ryals said the 10th Schriever Wargame 2016 exercise at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, this year, run by the U.S. Air Force Space Command, concluded that supply diversity improves resilience.

“If we can move between our own milsatcom capabilities, commercial capabilities and allied capabilities, it makes it difficult for our adversaries to know where we are,” Ryals said.

She said a half-dozen allied nations participated in this year’s exercise.

In another example of U.S. willingness to engage internationally, she said the U.S. Defense Department has sent letters to 16 allied governments asking them to take part in the Wideband Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) being prepared to assess how the U.S. military will address an expected shortfall in wideband capacity.

The study is looking at both ground terminal and gateway technologies as well as the satellite segment.

Ryals said around half of these governments had responded positively to the invitation, while the others had asked for further information before confirming they would take part.

As expected, Ryals stepped gingerly around the elephant in the room here Nov. 9, which was the policy implications of the election of Donald J. Trump as U.S. president. She said she could only presume that the logic of international collaboration was so strong that the current U.S. policy favoring it would not be changed.

Antony Allen Vraa, wideband satcom subject matter expert for the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the shortfall in wideband capacity was already showing up.

Military commercial demand declining but still $1 billion a year

Vraa said the U.S. Department of Defense in fiscal-year 2012 leased some $1.16 billion in commercial satellite communications capacity. That is down from previous years with the shrinking U.S. military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, but even today the annual purchase remains high.

Vraa said bandwidth requirements, notably for airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, is expected to increase by at lest 68 percent between 2016 and 2025.

That will help drive a total wideband requirement from 19 gigabits per second in 2016 to an estimated 32 gigabits per second in 2025 — “and that doesn’t even include about 3 gigabits that is in protected satcom that should be in wideband,” Vraa said. “So we have a huge gap. We’re actually running at the red line right now. We’re going to reach that gap much sooner.”

Funding for commercial capacity during that period remains uncertain with the likely shrinking of the contingency funding that up to now has been a big source of funding for the military’s use of commercial capacity.

The reason: The U.S. Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) constellation of military-Ka-band satellites is incapable of keeping up with demand. The 10th in the series is scheduled for launch in 2018.

“After that, the constellation is getting old and capacity is coming down,” Vraa said. “Fill that gap with commercial? Commercial is great when there is a war going on, because Congress gives us money. If there’s no war? Then all that commercial capacity is off-budget and has to come from operational funds. So we can’t plan for it. I know you commercial operators hate that, because you cannot plan for it.”

Pentagon to U.S. allies: Patience is a virtue, or at least necessary

Vraa and Ryals both said the time from deciding a program until it is actually in orbit could be more than a decade, far too long given the pace of satellite telecommunications technology development.

“I sure hope that one of the things that comes out of the AoA is something that is adaptable or can be upgraded,” Vraa said. “Otherwise it’s going to be obsolete when it gets to orbit.”

Feeding into the Wideband AoA are about a dozen working groups — hundreds of people, Vraa said — giving advice on multiple aspects of international partnerships, industry’s role, cost assessment, coverage capacity and other criteria.

He presented a slide showing a sausage grinder to illustrate how recommendations for future wideband communications supply.

Once the AoA recommendation is made, it goes back into the bureaucracy to win approval from the Joint Requirements Oversight Council for review and possible modification. Then to Congress for authorization and funding.

Ryals and Vraa pleaded for patience on the part of U.S. industry and international partners.

An AoA on Protected Satcom, whose encryption and security requirements are higher, was started around four years ago and still is not completed. “It’s being done by the same people who are doing the Wideband AoA,” Vraa said. He said that after the Wideband AoA, another one on Narrowband AoA will begin.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris bureau chief for SpaceNews.