The U.S. Department of Defense is investigating the most cost-effective ways to maintain its strategic and technological dominance as the U.S. moves beyond the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Leaders agree that satellite communications has become central to holding on to this edge, but how will DoD’s space architecture integrate the commercial satellite capabilities upon which it so actively relies? Will hosted payloads, leased capacity or other options be the most valuable path to enabling war fighter success?
As acting undersecretary of the Air Force, Jamie Morin stated recently at the Air Force Association’s Global Warfare Symposium, “Space is a fundamental pillar of America’s military and economic might. It’s an enduring source of American strength and American advantage.”
Space-based capabilities began playing more than a strategic role in military operations in the early 1990s, and by the early 2000s, the military began to rely heavily on the global commercial satellite industry to meet expanding requirements in Iraq and Afghanistan. With existing military satellite fleets stretched thin, commercial networks became crucial for UAV operations.
Growing UAV deployments have forever changed DoD’s approach to wartime and peacetime operations. More and better onboard sensor suites drive more UAV flights which, in turn, drive the need for more satellite capacity. Again, we see the overall demand for satellite capacity growing at a rate that far outstrips DoD’s capabilities.
This raises a fundamental question: Should DoD create an enduring role for commercial industry in meeting long-term UAV requirements, or should it mount a multibillion-dollar campaign to replace existing commercial terminals and satellite capacity with new military satellites and antennas? Given the current stress on the DoD budget and the strong demand for service continuity, resilience and efficiency, this should be an easy decision.
The commercial sector certainly understands all elements of this requirement, and also provides highly resilient service spread across many satellites with no single point of failure. Directing DoD money to the commercial sector would encourage investment in capacity to support new UAV applications and innovations as the military plans for the next generation of space capabilities.
Why not declare, as a matter of policy, that the commercial sector will be the primary means to meet the majority of the UAV satellite requirements? As the U.S. government considers how best to leverage industry’s capabilities for supporting UAVs and other requirements, it must consider the value of a distributed architecture that includes commercial assets and frequencies to supplement the existing dedicated systems and frequencies traditionally used for military satellite communications.
Rather than design and build a satellite (or an entire architecture) for moving information, hosted payloads would provide an elegant solution for dedicated government systems or capabilities “hosted” on commercial satellites. Hosted payloads also would allow governments to specify unique requirements and frequencies, and to maintain control of their space capabilities, while obtaining the efficiencies of commercial satellite procurement and operation.
The commercial satellite operator community has an enormous space and ground infrastructure that offers military operators worldwide ubiquitous, cost-efficient transmission of voice, video and data. These commercial efficiencies provide enhanced capability (like the SES-developed commercially hosted infrared payload) and significant cost reductions to government users (The Australian Defence Force has indicated the Australian UHF payload saved $150 million compared to a free-flyer asset).
Hosted payloads are priced on a percent-of-cost basis so the DoD can leverage the procurement and satellite bus and launch efficiencies of the commercial industry.
Another option is hosting tactical payloads and enhancing the commercial satellites with more protection. The U.S. government would be able to leverage industry’s existing investment in satellite fleets as it would with any hosted payload, but here it would add specific security features.
This model would enable DoD to disaggregate its military satellite communications and add more resilience to the overall architecture by flying separate tactical payloads from exquisite systems like AEHF, and ultimately help respond to anti-access/area-denial threats.
Lastly, industry knows that DoD needs a specific amount of satcom bandwidth 365 days a year, whether at war or not. Why not program for this baseline requirement and save precious budget dollars instead of buying it at a much higher price on the “spot” market? DoD can specify this baseline as it already justifies the procurement of military satcom assets with defined requirements.
As satellite communications have become critical to DoD operations worldwide, leadership must develop plans to efficiently incorporate this technology, both its own military satcom as well as commercial satcom, into its future architecture. Working more closely with commercial operators to leverage their assets, acquisition efficiencies and technology expertise will be required to maintain space dominance.
By Kay Sears, president of Intelsat General, Bethesda, Md., which provides commercial satellite capacity to customers worldwide.