U.S. Military Sees Bandwidth Potential of Commercial Ka-band, But Hurdles Remain

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — A new crop of commercial Ka-band satellites offers enormous potential to meet the U.S. military’s growing demand for bandwidth to support global communications, according to government officials attending a military communications conference here. The officials cautioned, however, that budgetary and policy issues must be addressed before the armed services can fully embrace the new offerings.

Satellite service providers around the globe, including London-based Inmarsat, Hughes Communications, Yahsat of the United Arab Emirates, Iridium Communications, ViaSat Inc. and Paris-based Eutelsat, have announced plans to invest billions of dollars in new Ka-band satellites because those spacecraft offer the promise of transmitting vast quantities of data more quickly and at lower cost than current satellites, said Mark Dankberg, chief executive of ViaSat of Carlsbad, Calif.

While those satellite programs are designed primarily to serve commercial markets, the added capacity also can help meet growing military communications demands, according to government and industry officials attending the MILCOM 2010 conference here Nov. 1-3.

Information and the ability to protect that information have become as important to the U.S. military as land, sea and air power, said Col. Patrick Rayermann, director of satellite communications integration at the U.S. Defense Department’s National Space Security Office. As a result, the Defense Department must continually expand its information infrastructure to enable it to handle growing demands for voice, video and data transfer.

Although the U.S. armed services are upgrading their communications satellites through projects like the Navy’s Mobile User Objective System and the Air Force’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency and Wideband Global Satcom (WGS), “that capacity is not going to keep up with demand,” Rayermann said. To meet that demand, the Defense Department will need to rely on its own satellites, commercial satellites and those of its coalition partners, he said.

It will be particularly important to gain access to a variety of commercial and military satellites offering different capabilities around the globe because U.S. military commanders often do not know where they will be asked to send forces, what size force will be required for a given mission or what type of work they will be asked to perform, such as fighting or providing humanitarian assistance, Rayermann said. “We need to create an infrastructure that’s affordable, flexible and scalable to meet the vagaries of the future,” he said.

In spite of their promise, commercial satellites are not capable of handling all military communications, such as messages that require high levels of security, said Joe Vanderpoorten, technical director for military satellite communications at the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles. Commercial firms have found ways to protect data through encryption and limited access to networks, but more safeguards are needed to protect certain military communications, he said.

In addition, Vanderpoorten pointed out the logistics challenge of supplying far-flung units that currently rely on Ku-band equipment with Ka-band ground terminals. “Wouldn’t it be great if commercial [firms] could offer a Ku-band/Ka-band terminal?” he said. “It could take me from Ku-band today and move to Ka-band in the future.”

Another issue involves how the Defense Department would acquire Ka-band capacity. Would the military lease capacity on a commercial spacecraft, lease with the intent of eventually purchasing the spacecraft or buy a satellite outright, Vanderpoorten asked. “We have a concept where we would go out and buy one of these satellites right off,” he said.

As government officials explore some of those questions, Rayermann suggested that the Defense Department conduct experiments to determine the advantages offered by commercial Ka-band satellites as well as actual costs of service and potential technology pitfalls. There are groups within the military, “including the airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance communities and others who are absolutely interested in WGS and commercial Ka-band satellites,” Rayermann said. “Let’s tease out the art of the possible by running some experiments.”

Those experiments could be conducted by military units in the United States or around the world in light of emerging Ka-band capacity, Dankberg said. ViaSat offers Ka-band service through its WildBlue-1 satellite and a long-term lease of Ka-band capacity on Telesat of Canada’s Anik F2 satellite. Hughes Communications of Germantown, Md., offers Ka-band service through its Spaceway-3 satellite.

Both Hughes and ViaSat plan to expand their Ka-band services with satellites being built by Space Systems/Loral of Palo Alto, Calif. ViaSat plans to launch ViaSat-1 early in 2011 and Hughes plans to launch Jupiter in 2012. In addition, Eutelsat, Yahsat, Iridium Communications of McLean, Va., and Inmarsat have announced plans to launch Ka-band satellites.

By 2014, Inmarsat plans to offer global Ka-band coverage with a constellation of three Inmarsat 5 satellites to provide communications for maritime, energy and government customers, said Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, president of Inmarsat Government Services. The first Inmarsat 5 satellite, scheduled for launch in late 2013, will offer coverage in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, including regions where military traffic is in great demand, she added.

The U.S. military is building its own Ka-band constellation. The first three satellites in the WGS constellation are in orbit. The U.S. Air Force has awarded contracts to Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of Seal Beach, Calif., to build a fleet of at least eight of the satellites, which offer X-band and Ka-band communications.

User terminals designed to provide links to the WGS constellation could be designed to communicate with commercial Ka-band satellites as well, government and industry officials said. The Ka-band signal coming from Inmarsat 5 is “not exactly the same Ka-band that we use, but it’s right next door so it is possible to build an airborne terminal that will cover both WGS and Inmarsat 5 satellites,” said Roy Axford, senior technologist for wireless communications at the U.S. Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Pacific in San Diego.

Designing user terminals to take advantage of both commercial and government Ka-band constellations would give the military greater operational flexibility, said Cowen-Hirsch. The technology exists to develop terminals that offer that flexibility and do not cost more than terminals designed to link only to military Ka-band satellites, she added.