Faced with a shortage of military satellite communications capacity, the U.S. government has increasingly turned to commercial operators to close the bandwidth gap. Roughly 80 percent of all U.S. government and military traffic is carried over commercial satellites, and while the tempo of U.S. military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan will decrease in the future, demand for commercial satellite services is expected to rise. As the reliance on commercial satellite services continues to grow, military requirements are beginning to have a greater influence on the long-term plans of the commercial operators.
Twenty years ago, UHF radio was the communication workhorse, but satellite communications eventually overtook it. With the advent of the Internet and portable computing platforms, the rate of satellite usage swelled dramatically. During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the military consumed 140 bits per second (bps) of satellite bandwidth per deployed person. The amount jumped to nearly 3,000 bps during Operation Noble Anvil, the U.S. component of NATO’s Operation Allied Force in Kososvo in 1999. According to Col. Thomas Shearer, chief, Strategy & Planning Integration division, National Security Space Office (NSSO). Bandwidth usage jumped again during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, with bandwidth reaching 8,300 bps per deployed person during the operation, which began in 2001, and by the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004, the level escalated to 13,800 bps per person, an increase of 9,700 percent throughout the 13-year period.
No End To Demand
The hunger for bandwidth is not expected to slow anytime in the near future as new warfighter initiatives and the increased usage of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are expected to drive additional demand. As troops are drawn down in Iraq and Afghanistan, their absence likely will be supplemented by more widespread use of UAVs, which consume vast amounts of bandwidth and can require a full transponder to send high-definition video and sensor data back to their controllers on the ground. And UAVs are not the only the reason bandwidth needs will grow in the future. The U.S. government’s mandated implementation of next-generation Internet Protocol, IPv6, will enable a number of new applications such as RFID tagging and sensor monitoring, creating even more demand for bandwidth. Due to security needs, the military would like to carry as much traffic on its own satellites as possible, but the current and planned in-orbit capacity can satisfy only a fraction of the demand. U.S. Department of Defense planners had hoped that the Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) fleet of six satellites would significantly decrease the military’s reliance on commercial satellites. Each WGS satellite has the capacity to transmit information at rates of more than 3 gigabits per second, more than 10 times the capacity of the Defense Satellite Communications System. During testing of WGS 1, the first operational satellite, the government transmitted a 440 megabits-per-second communications signal through the satellite. With WGS leading the way for a new-generation of military satcom programs, the Office of Assistant Secretary of Defense, Network Information and Integration, says a quantitative assessment of the Pentagon’s future reliance on commercial satellite operators is difficult. The three most influential factors will be the supply of military satcom capacity available, total military demand for communications and the amount of funding available to procure commercial service. “With the projected growth in [military satcom] capacity as a result of the WGS deployment, the [Department of Defense] is developing a strategy to migrate users from commercial satcom to WGS,” the office says. “The results of this activity will be an identification of the users that transition to WGS, the users that stay on commercial satcom and the funding needed by the users to lease the capacity on commercial satcom.” The transfer of users to WGS will be delayed somewhat, as budget constraints have slowed the development of the program. WGS 1 just entered service over the Pacific Ocean region. WGS 2 and 3 have been completed and are scheduled to be launched in October and April 2009, respectively. The remaining three WGS satellites are scheduled to be launched between 2011 and 2013, which includes a spacecraft that will be funded by the Australian Defence Ministry in order for Australian military forces to have access to the U.S. military satcom system. Although the WGS, Advanced Extremely High Frequency Satellite and Mobile User Objective System satellite systems will significantly increase military capabilities when they become fully operational, it is clear that military satellites alone will not provide enough bandwidth to meet all of the government’s needs. Government acquisition of commercial space segment and associated services is done via short-term contracts, which can sometimes hamstring the ability of military planners to secure bandwidth. The tremendous growth in high-definition television has decreased the number of available transponders in regions around the globe, and in some areas, such as the Indian Ocean region, capacity is sold out. “The [Department of Defense] has a fundamental problem with accurate demand forecasting,” says Patricia Cooper, president of the Satellite Industry Association (SIA). “They don’t know when they will be in a war or providing humanitarian support. It is complicated and challenging to forecast communications requirements with the vagaries of the geopolitical process. Commercial operators have to anticipate what their [Pentagon] customers will need. SIA is part of an ongoing and vigorous dialog with the [Defense Department] to make sure their challenges are well understood by commercial suppliers. The commercial satellite industry has invested a great deal in developing tailored services, products and equipment and continues to see the government as a critical customer going forward.”