Contraction, Reaction: Budget Cut Resistance Driving UAV Technology Initiatives

By | April 1, 2012 | Feature, Government

The U.S. Air Force received a vital boost to its satellite communications capacity supply on a clear evening in mid-January, when a United Launch Alliance Delta 4 rocket lofted its fourth Wideband Global Satcom (WGS-4) satellite from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The $464 million Boeing-built satellite, capable of providing 10 times the communications capacity of its predecessor system, represents a major element in the U.S. military’s mission to both support tactical communications to and between ground forces and relay data and imagery from UAVs.

The successful launch mission brought on a deep sense of relief and satisfaction for the Pentagon, “especially knowing how important the constellation is to our troops in the field. WGS is a big upgrade for our nation,” says Air Force Capt. Tim Trimailo, who directs the military’s WGS operations and sustainment program. “We can expand the WGS system and provide contact information for sustainable combat commanders worldwide. This will help the soldiers ensure the process of communication. Even if critical nodes are disabled, troops will still be able to access vital communication links at all times.”

Protection of UAV Programs

The WGS-4 launch also symbolizes the U.S. military’s stalwart protection of two key programs throughout the current era of drastic budget cuts — WGS satellites and UAVs, which represent a major source of satellite communications demand from the government sector. A single Global Hawk aircraft consumes 500 Mbps of capacity, which is five times the total bandwidth used by the U.S. military during the first Gulf War.

The Pentagon’s plan to reduce military spending by $487 billion in the next decade was met with serious concern in the space sector after it was published as part of the military’s 2013 full-year budget. While total U.S. defense spending is expected to decline 22 percent from its peak in 2010, the U.S. Department of Defense has specifically highlighted its defense of UAV program funding.

While the defense budget does not exactly spell out which programs will receive additional spending, UAV and other electronic warfare and communications satellite programs are likely to benefit. In a budget strategy document issued in February, the military urged Congress to support a sufficient amount of trained personnel, infrastructure and platforms in order to sustain 65 Air Force MQ 1/9 combat air patrols (CAPs) with a surge capacity of 85. “The Predator aircraft was retained longer than previously planned, allowing us to slow the buy of the Reaper aircraft and gain some savings,” the document says. “We also protected funding for the Army’s air system, Gray Eagle.”

Aside from the cancellation of the Global Hawk UAV program, which had been plagued by severe cost overruns, the Pentagon intends to increase spending on UAVs to support a minimum of 65 combat air patrols. This is good news for the satellite industry, as it establishes a firm belief from both ends of the military and policy process that dominance of space is expected to be a key discriminator on future battlefields. The protection of UAV funding, says Trimailo, should be extended for needed upgrades to the GPS, SBIRS and AEHF programs.

How does this develop impact commercial providers? Besides the military’s well-published reliance on commercial satcom, “the insatiable demand for bandwidth in support of high-definition video, for everything from UAV missions to maintaining troop morale, is also driving a faster pace of technology adoption,” says Harris CapRock president David Myers.

Prime examples of the UAV-driven technology push can be found in the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) joint initiative with the U.S. Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center’s Atlantic and Northwest UAV Propulsion division to build an advanced UAV with the help of private-sector engineers. The UAVForge initiative asked engineers and designers for their ideas and received submissions from more than 1,400 teams. Some critics and defense contractors have called the UAVForge program a mere “crowd-sourcing” strategy, DARPA spokesman Eric Mazzacone says the program is just one way to cut back on parts of the defense budget while meeting future requirements. “Small UAVs play a critical role in modern military operations,” he says. “The next generation of these aerial robotic systems needs to have enhanced takeoff and landing capabilities, better endurance, require less support equipment and be adaptable to mission needs in varying conditions. [UAVForge] encourages engineers to share ideas and problems they’ve encountered in the hope that they would build on each other’s ingenuity.”

Other UAV tech-related alliances are forming solely in the private sector. In February, AAI Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), an operating unit of Textron Systems, announced a strategic partnership with satellite company ViaSat to align its advanced unmanned aircraft and command and control technologies with ViaSat’s integrated airborne and terrestrial satellite communications, as well as its IP-based networking and security technology. Under the agreement, the organizations intend to develop and mature beyond-line-of-sight satellite communications capabilities for AAI UAS’ current and next-generation UAV aircraft.

Performance

“The performance and affordability of tactical UAVs like our Shadow system make them an invaluable battlefield asset with a growing mission spectrum,” says AAI UAS senior vice president and general manager Steven Reid. “Our customers’ unmanned assets need to be as flexible and capable as the troops who utilize them, and this new strategic alliance with ViaSat is one way that we’re staying on the leading edge of system development and integration.”

ViaSat Global Mobile Broadband vice president and general manager Paul Baca says the partnership with AAI UAS is completely in-sync with ViaSat’s long-term strategy to deliver high-end broadband performance over ultra-small-aperture airborne satellite communication systems. “Private satellite network services can deliver more than enough dedicated bandwidth needed to distribute tactical UAV video throughout the military’s battle theaters.”

Smaller technology firms are trying to build themselves up as an attractive one-stop UAV shop for the Pentagon through acquisitions. Last year, Sanswire Corp., a developer of lighter-than-air UAVs, acquired privately held U.S. based satellite-tracking firm Global Telesat to leverage the satellite-based asset tracking hardware, airtime and related equipment it provided to the U.S. Department of Defense. Global Telesat’s satellite tracking hardware and processing equipment are collocated around the globe at ground station facilities owned and operated by MSS firm Globalstar and its independent gateway partners. The company also operates its own satellite ground station facility and has in the past been awarded contracts to construct non-commercial satellite ground stations for Defense Department prime contractors.

Sanswire CEO Glenn Estrella says the move also leveraged Global Telesat’s relationship with the Pentagon and helped secure contracts for its Argus UAV line of airships. “Global Telesat and Sanswire shared working relationships with key technical partners and systems integrators, which allowed for a streamlined design and commercialization process resulting in high-quality, integrated products and a swift time to market. We believed the synergies generated by a combined entity are very exciting and would contribute positively to our financial results for 2011. The integration of ours and [Global Telesat’s] technology into a complete, turnkey solution provide an attractive option for government and commercial customers seeking ISR, tracking and monitoring, and communications solutions.”

Canada

Simultaneously, the same public and private sector interaction over UAVs is happening north of the U.S. border. At the beginning of 2012, The Royal Canadian Air Force launched its own review of the country’s intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance needs in an effort to determine the right combination of unmanned planes, maritime patrol aircraft and satellites.

Canada’s Joint UAV Surveillance and Target Acquisition System (JUSTAS) program includes the procurement of UAVs, spare parts, ground stations and a 20-year in-service support package that will be provided by the winning bidder of a private-sector contract expected to exceed 1.5 billion Canadian dollars ($1.45 billion).

A contract for JUSTAS was supposed to have been awarded in the fall of 2010, with operating capability for the Canadian UAV fleet scheduled for February 2012.

JUSTAS deputy project director Maj. Mark Wuennenberg says the Canadian Air Force will eventually begin the JUSTAS initiative after the program’s C4ISR strategy is hammered out in the summer of this year. “Initial operating capability is expected in 2017, with full operational capability in 2019,” he says. “It’s understood that all the UAV capabilities outlined in the JUSTAS program are out there and are all needed because they bring their own specific capabilities to the table. It’s just the mix that needs to be validated.”

Canada also uses the Radarsat 2 satellite for UAV programs. The satellite was built by MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) and launched by Starsem on a Soyuz rocket for the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in December 2007.

Wuennenberg says there’s a reason why the military hasn’t released many details about that future acquisition. “The C4ISR Strategy is in the process of determining which surveillance assets are best suited for particular roles. The questions that have come up are, how many manned [aircraft] do we need, how many unmanned, how many satellites and what do each provide?”

Canada is currently in the midst of a $1.5 billion program to upgrade its existing Aurora maritime patrol planes that will allow the fleet to continue operating beyond 2020. The Auroras will be upgraded with structural and sensor improvements by 2014 to provide improved capability in conducting surveillance operations along Canadian coastlines and overseas. While Wuennenberg says the UAVs to be purchased under the JUSTAS program would be capable of carrying weapons, the primary role for the aircraft is intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

“JUSTAS will be used for overland and maritime surveillance, both in an expeditionary role and for domestic operations,” he says. “[The Canadian Air Force] wants its UAVs to carry a range of sensors, including a gyro-stabilized sensor turret to enable crew to covertly detect, identify and track targets at least as small as humans with weapons, and obtain targeting data at any time of the day.”

Satellite information solutions company MDA is one of a number of companies that are preparing to bid on the JUSTAS project once a request for proposals is issued. MDA delivers operational airborne imaging systems designed as a variant of the Heron vehicle and based on Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) capability.

MDA feels confident it can win the UAV upgrade contract in its native country over U.S.-based technology firm General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, which will bid its Predator UAV to the Canadian Air Force. Canada did lease MDA tactical UAVs in January 2008 for its own Afghanistan mission, along with Israel Aerospace Industries’ Heron aircraft.

Regardless of which company wins the new upgrade contract, Wuennenberg says Canada’s military is committed to acquiring a UAV capability. “We’re fully resourced. We have the money we need. We have the people we need to go ahead to put forth a good robust capability for a UAV squadron.”

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