The ever-increasing demand for satellite communications bandwidth has challenged military planners for decades. (Staff Sgt. Sarayuth Pinthong / Air Force)
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In March 2011, the Defense Department announced a radical change in its communications strategy. Instead of leasing bandwidth on commercial satellites for one year at a time, as it had for decades, the Pentagon would sign a $500 million, 15-year lease for a satellite to relay communications for troops in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. Experts said planning ahead like this would save hundreds of millions of dollars a year over the status quo, an ad hoc, seat-of-the-pants system in which the Pentagon paid premium prices to acquire satellite capacity in one-year increments.
Within months, Congress blocked the move — stripping the money for the satellite-leasing program, known as Assured Satcom Services in Single Theater, or ASSIST, and transferring it to the Air Force to pay for an additional spacecraft in its Wideband Global Satcom constellation.
“It’s just a reminder of how hard change really is,” said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Tip Osterthaler, president and CEO of SES Government Solutions.
Nevertheless, change might be around the corner. Faced with federal budget cuts and surging demand for satellite bandwidth, to send everything from ISR feeds to truck repair manuals, the Pentagon is once again looking for ways to trim the cost of communications. In September, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter asked the Defense Business Board to delve into the issue. That high-level attention, coupled with a concerted push from industry, signals the most serious opportunity for change in decades.
U.S. military bandwidth demand is expected to rise 74 percent in the next 10 years from the current level of 24 gigabits per second to more than 41 gigabits per second, according to the latest estimates from Northern Sky Research, a consulting and market analysis firm.
Worldwide, only about 20 percent of U.S. military communications travel over U.S. military satellites. For the other 80 percent, defense agencies spend $1 billion to $2 billion a year buying excess capacity on the same commercial satellites that give the world direct-to-home television and networks for mobile devices. In 15 years, the cost of that satellite service could rise to $5 billion annually, according to the Defense Business Board.
Although the Pentagon is in the midst of a multiyear campaign to launch its own state-of-the-art communication satellites, it’s not likely to become any less dependent on the commercial markets. Military demand for bandwidth keeps outpacing supply due largely to the adoption of intensive ISR campaigns and the proliferation of mobile devices.
The problem isn’t new, however. The Defense Department has been struggling to accommodate skyrocketing demand for satellite bandwidth for decades. In June 2004, this magazine, then called ISR Journal, reported that the Pentagon’s “ultimate solution to satisfy bandwidth requirements is the Air Force’s planned Transformational Communications Satellite (TSAT),” a planned constellation of five satellites plus an orbiting spare capable of relaying data to thousands of portable radios in ships, aircraft and ground vehicles, while resisting jamming, eavesdropping or even disruption in the wake of a nuclear blast.
From 2003 to 2009, the Pentagon spent $2.5 billion on the program, widely heralded as the answer to the bandwidth dilemma, before Defense Secretary Robert Gates canceled it in response to surging cost estimates and launch schedules moving inexorably into the future. The collapse of TSAT cemented DoD’s addiction to commercial communications satellites, an expensive habit that Carter asked the Defense Business Board to help him manage.
“Members of the satellite commercial sector often approach the Department of Defense with opportunities to provide highly desirable and time-sensitive commercial communications capabilities,” Carter wrote in a Sept. 3 letter to the Defense Business Board. “DoD has been unable to take advantage of these ideas due to either existing processes … or a DoD culture that appears to resist dependence on commercial providers for satellite services.”
Carter asked the panel to determine what was preventing the Pentagon from making better use of the commercial satellite sector and to recommend solutions.
Although the final Defense Business Board report has not been released, briefing slides published Jan. 24 provide a clear picture of the board’s conclusions. The panel suggested that the Pentagon abandon its practice of paying top dollar for one-year leases and consider new approaches like the long-term leases favored by broadcasters, a move satellite industry groups have been advocating for years.
“Commercial enterprises negotiate very large volume discounts because they commit to buying bandwidth over a long period of time,” explained David Helfgott, president and chief executive of Inmarsat Government.
The Defense Business Board also suggested the military send its own specialized communications equipment into orbit on commercial satellites. The Air Force used that approach in 2011 to attach a missile-warning sensor to an SES communication satellite. Although the service had trouble building the sensor on schedule and actually missed its first ride into orbit, Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, or SMC, officials said the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload program has been a success because it is allowing them to test advanced technology more quickly and at a fraction of the cost of launching it on a government spacecraft.
It takes the U.S. military 10 to 20 years to build its own satellites, due to voluminous policies, rules and regulations that lay out every minute step in the process. It takes about four years for the Defense Department to approve a detailed description of the precise job a new satellite must perform. It takes two more years to hold a competition and select the prime contractor. Then, the winner spends anywhere from seven to 14 years designing, building and testing the new satellite under the watchful eye of government officials, a retired DoD official said.
Companies, on the other hand, can design, build and fly a new satellite in about three years.
“We don’t have exquisite requirements,” Osterthaler said. “We don’t push the art of the possible. We don’t take technical risk. But if you want communications capacity on orbit on time at a known price, we know how to do that.”
The Defense Department can take advantage of that expertise by buying or leasing those satellites. Or, if it wants to fly specialized hardware to meet unique military requirements, it can piggyback on those flights. In February, the Space and Missile Systems Center invited companies to meet in Los Angeles to discuss ways the Air Force could launch military equipment on commercial satellites.
DIFFUSION OF RESPONSIBILITY
SMC is one of the Pentagon’s primary agencies responsible for meeting military demand for satellite communications, but it is not the only one. The Defense Information Systems Agency buys most of the Pentagon’s commercial satellite capacity while SMC procures most military satellites. In addition, dozens of offices and organizations have a hand in planning, acquiring and supporting the military’s use of communication satellites. The Defense Business Board recommended concentrating that authority in a single organization, noting that “from an outside view,” the current roles and responsibilities appear ambiguous.
The board also suggested that the Defense Department’s chief information officer craft a comprehensive plan for satellite communications and that top Pentagon officials discuss the appropriate roles for military and commercial communication satellites during the Pentagon’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, a study conducted every four years to
home in on strategic threats and objectives. “This is something very tangible that has not occurred previously: the intentional planning and funding for commercial satellite services as an integrated portion of DoD’s architecture,” said Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, senior vice president for Inmarsat Global Services.
Although it seems surprising, the Pentagon doesn’t budget for the vast majority of money it spends on commercial satellite leases. Instead, it pays for them out of overseas contingency operations, a catchall budget that covers the day-to-day expense of fighting, training and providing humanitarian assistance around the world. The largest commercial satellite owners and operators are eager to see the Defense Department discard that approach and begin to plan and budget for satellite communications.
“Prudent planning dictates that the Department of Defense should establish a baseline amount of satellite communications infrastructure that it needs to buy from commercial operators and then contract for that on a long-term basis,” according to a Jan. 14 letter signed by the leaders of Eutelsat America, Intelsat General, SES Government Solutions, Telesat and Xtar.
The letter goes on to warn that if the Defense Department continues to buy commercial satellite capacity on a short-term basis, it may not always find the service it needs.
“The U.S. government is buying commercial satellite capacity the same way it buys janitorial services” on annual contracts, Osterthaler said. That makes companies reluctant to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in satellites to address military demand, he added.
That lack of investment is particularly apparent in the Asia-Pacific region. The Pentagon is preparing to move additional forces into the region, but the excess satellite communication capacity that commercial firms loaned U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan is not readily available.
“If there is a crisis in the South China Sea, I don’t believe there will be spare capacity suitable for U.S. military applications,” Osterthaler said. “No matter how many dollars you bring, there isn’t any capacity.”
Although there are about 70 satellites parked in geostationary orbit over the Pacific, approximately 45 of them are operated by local or national groups that are not likely to work with U.S. government agencies. Many of the remaining satellites owned and operated by private companies have fixed, wide-coverage beams focused on large land masses and designed primarily to transmit television broadcasts and offer Internet service. The U.S. military will be hard-pressed to find the coverage it needs to support intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, industry officials said.
“We estimate the Pacific region has about 25 percent of the available commercial satellite alternatives compared with the current conflict in southwest Asia, where over 20 satellites serve military and allied demand,” said Kay Sears, president of Intelsat General.
Defense Department officials acknowledged there’s a heightened demand, but they say the bottleneck in Asia won’t be worse than similar problems they encounter all the time.
“Our DoD bandwidth requirements keep increasing, just as civil and commercial bandwidth requirements constantly grow,” said Harold Haney, chief of the satellite and Missile Defense C4 Division at U.S. Strategic Command.
To help meet demand, DoD is launching a new fleet of satellites with significantly more bandwidth, speed and function than their predecessors, Haney said by email. In 2010, the Air Force launched the first of its planned constellation of six Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites, which are designed to resist jamming while using a variety of techniques to maintain high levels of security for military communications. Since 2008, the Air Force also has been filling its Wideband Global Satcom constellation, which transmits everything from voice messages to full-motion video imagery for U.S. and allied forces. Four WGS satellites have been launched and a fifth spacecraft is scheduled to launch in April.
As for the Navy, in February 2012, it launched its first Mobile User Objective System satellite. The Navy’s planned constellation of four MUOS satellites plus one on-orbit spare is designed to offer a secure, cellphonelike service for the radios carried in military trucks, tanks, ships, aircraft and backpacks.
DoD personnel also are focusing on making optimum use of available bandwidth. For example, they are creating tools to identify any communication capacity that has been assigned to a customer but remains idle so they can reassign it.
“The trick is to manage the spectrum smartly and efficiently so as to squeeze every last ounce of usefulness out of it,” Haney said.
But even so, the other trick is to recognize that it will take a combination of all the assets the government and commercial industry can cobble together to satisfy growing Defense Department demand.