Satellite Vendors Ready to Meet Military Challenges
With the United States and its allies embroiled in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the demands on technology to help warfighters has never been greater, particularly against an enemy that is more fluid and flexible than before.
Satellite technology is playing a pivotal role in assisting military forces, and the United States is trying to exploit all of satellite’s capabilities in assisting its forces. There is a healthy demand for next-generation military satellite communications terminals, and many vendors are playing a role in providing state-of-the-art communications to military forces. The demands for this hardware is growing. “With the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of [request for proposals] that we are responding to and the number of satellite terminals we have installed compared to previous years. This increase is not only domestic, but we are also seeing quite a bit of activity internationally,” says Wally Martland, president of Newpoint Technologies.
Fredrik Hanell, CEO of Sweden’s C2Sat, says, “Just like it has previously done for network-based broadband telecommunications, the need for more bandwidth is penetrating new mobile applications requiring satellite-based services. We believe that the market for satellite communications terminals is on the brink of dramatic growth, mainly because the demand for the transfer of digital information to vessels at sea is increasing. In the military sector, the tactical applications are becoming increasingly complex and bandwidth demanding, whilst they are being made available to even the smallest combat units.”
While the demands being placed on satellite vendors are increasing, vendors also face very stringent demands from military forces seeking “smaller, lighter weight and lower profile antenna systems that can survive the environment and also can perform on the move — which means control of the pointing in dynamic environments — and are packaged uniquely to fit on the available space on the platform while providing the communications for the concept of operations desired,” says David Smith, vice president and general manager of EMS Technologies’ Defense & Space Systems, a company that supports the ground-based terminal side of the market. “The satellites going up, particularly TSAT (Transformational Satellite Communications System), are aimed precisely at that with the kind of power and focusing of beams so a mobile user with a smaller system can get the gain that is required to achieve the higher data rates needed for the objective,” he says.
Jeff Perry, vice president of business development of Harris Defense Programs says, “The warfighter needs increased mobility and flexibility to meet its missions. This equates to system improvements in system size, weight, power, set up, reliability and ease of use,” he says. “The demand for increased bandwidth will require multiband systems and waveform efficiency. User mobility needs will require ad hoc communication networks and dynamic antenna positioning. Increasingly sophisticated enemy threats will require jam-resistant waveforms. Mobile networking technology is maturing. [Radio frequency] front-end continues to evolve with higher levels of integration and improved performance. Communications on the move is moving up the frequency bands with increasing data rates.”
To help meet these requirements, Martland believes manufacturers have developed terminals that are managed much more efficiently. “The terminals being deployed today are much more automated than in the past to allow the frontline soldier to be able to deploy and establish communications without having to send out specialists to deploy the terminal,” he says. “In addition, they are no longer managed on an individual terminal basis. They are being centrally managed. This allows your experts to remain behind the lines and manage the communications without being placed at risk.”
Martland emphasizes centralized control as a major point of improvement. “We are seeing more emphasis on being able to remotely manage all the terminals in an area of operations such as Iraq or Afghanistan via the engineering service channel,” he says. “The ability of the software to use the Iridium and Inmarsat networks to provide a back up communications link virtually anywhere in the world is a major step forward and really enables the whole concept of centralized control of all the terminals, because you do always have a way to get control of the terminal back if something happens to the terminal itself,” he says.
With the addition of these improvements, Hanell believes there is no doubt that today’s terminals offer “significantly better performance. We believe the main differentiator is that the newer generation of [satellite communications] terminals provide significantly better performance,” he says. “The implication is that military customers can use a low-cost alternative to the high-end military terminals and still achieve extremely good tracking accuracy and connectivity uptime. Further developments and adaptations of these entry-level terminals to better meet even the toughest [military] standards will inevitably lead to them cannibalizing on the high-end segment.”
While many improvements have been made, the demands of the military customers necessitate constant research and development efforts,” says Smith. You may see “from us new [satellite communications] systems that are compatible with stealth vehicles such as the F-22, new manufacturing techniques to cut the cost of these systems, advances in composites that can be used to keep the weight low, new antenna designs that allow broader bandwidths in a lower profile configurations, and new packaging for platform-friendly, multiband solutions,” he says.
Newpoint has been spending a great deal of effort managing communications between the terminals in the field and the network operations center managing the network, says Martland. “The terminal is deployed to provide essential data to the warfighter in extreme circumstances, and you don’t want that delayed or interfered with by the terminal management software,” he says. “So we have worked to reduce the amount of data transported by the control system to the [network operations center] and establish efficient yet responsive communication between them. This is not only the current status and control of the terminal but also to enable them to upload new mission parameters to the terminal.”
The U.S. military is helping fund some of this research and development through many programs. In November, Globecomm Systems was awarded a contract by the U.S. Army to develop a standard network IP modem for use on military and commercial satellites. The Joint IP Modem, being developed in conjunction with subcontractor ViaSat Inc., will serve as the U.S. Department of Defense’s standard network IP modem for satellites, and the goal of the effort is to leverage commercial technology while providing an open standard based approach which can form the basis of interoperability for military users. The contract is valued at $9.9 million and includes multiple options that if fully exercised over the next three years would value the contract at $87 million.
For Globecomm, the Joint IP Modem deal is vital, says Kenneth Miller, Globecomm’s president. “The network-centric IP modem is being designed to be the [Department of Defense] standard network IP modem for use with military and commercial satellites and will be packaged for integration into fixed and transportable satellite terminals that can be easily deployed with the warfighter,” he says. “This capability will allow the warfighter to access databases for information as well as provide a communications path for voice or data in a tactical environment. The goal of the [modem] effort is to leverage commercial technology to the maximum extent possible while providing an open standards-based approach which can form the basis of interoperability for military users. The network-centric IP modem is designed to provide demand-based satellite communication transport services to the warfighter, which means satellite bandwidth will be used more efficiently than current circuit based satellite communication systems.”
The program is “a progressive step in the proliferation of commercial satellite communication technologies into military satellite communication terminals,” says Ric Vandermeulen, vice president and general manager, Government Satcom Systems, ViaSat. “The new generation of terminals benefits from communication improvements in modulation and coding, use of ACM (adaptive coding modulation), and advances in dynamic resource allocation in addition to architectural transition to IP applications. Taken together, these new terminals are able to combine advances in IP acceleration, quality of service and compression with the communication improvement to provide efficient, open architecture terminals. In the future, the technology evolution will be in the networking, information assurance and bandwidth dimensions.” The modem will provide an affordable, open standard, tactical terminal system providing access to the Global Information Grid, and other capabilities being developed under the modem effort will be expanded into the Global Broadcast Service and potentially the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical Increment 1 and combat support services programs, he says.
“The new generation of satellite terminals are Internet Protocol based as opposed to earlier terminals that were circuit based,” says Miller. “The use of Internet Protocol means that any service can be provided through one platform and these services can be managed end to end through the Global Information Grid to the warfighter. Many of the new generation of satellite terminals are multiband to allow flexibility when requirements for deployment arise. The ability to access both military and commercial satellites provides the ability to adapt to the warfighters needs as they arise in a military tactical situation. The new tactical terminals we supply auto acquire the satellite and automatically configure the terminal into the network. This makes it much easier, quicker and with less training to deploy.”
The U.S. Navy’s Multiband Terminal contract, awarded to Raytheon in June, also will bring significant communications technology advancements, says Rick Smith, Raytheon’s director of Navy communications systems. “The capability on the ships today are basically all point-to-point systems, all working individually in specific parts of the spectrum to allow the Navy to communicate,” he says. This “is really going to replace many of the legacy systems that exist on the ships today. So it provides a smaller footprint and more capable systems.” The contract could be valued at more than $1 billion for development and production.
Part of Raytheon’s focus in its satellite communications work is to make sure systems can evolve to meet the requirements established for future satellite programs, says Smith. The approach will help the Navy save money when additional capability is added with the launch of new satellites. “We have to understand what capability the satellite can provide and then work our research and development programs and upgrades to our existing terminals to allow for a smooth transition to the more capable satellites once they are launched and available,” says Smith. “Much of the technology development is about reduction of our apertures while increasing bandwidth so that the footprint is smaller and yet more capable. We are looking at phased array technology. Phased array systems seem to be very expensive right now. We haven’t figured out how to get the technology down to a reasonable cost, but we will continue working that. We are also looking at laser communication technology. The idea is find the technology gaps between the technology we have today and what technology advances we can achieve tomorrow. We should also find ways to use bandwidth more efficiently so we can meet the requirements of the government.”
While most vendors are concentrating on opportunities with the U.S. military, there are a growing numbers of opportunities outside of the United States. “We have actually seen as much if not more demand internationally as we are domestically,” says Martland. “Everyone seems to be following the lead set by the [United States] and realizes the need for getting information to the warfighter as well as sharing this information between allies. So we are seeing activity from a many of our allies, as well as the UN and NATO, for more advanced terminals, and virtually all are looking for the centralized control of the terminals from [network operations centers] they are establishing.”
Smith says, “It seems to be a follow-on market. Once we have developed this capability for more mobile, lightweight antenna systems, there will be an international market from our allies and others. We’ve already seen an increase in the military satellite business, which we have participated in, so the obvious next step would be to have terminals that go with those satellites. We don’t see a lot of that in 2008, somewhat driven by our focus on the U.S. market versus the expense and effort of an international sales channel. However, we are making some improvements in selected international markets in 2008 consistent with our growth plan.”
Vandermeulen also is confident about growth in international prospects for military equipment suppliers. “Demand for the next-generation terminals is growing outside the U.S. We have seen strong interest in efficient IP terminals in Europe, Asia and the Asia-Pacific regions. An example is Australia’s policy decision to support the WGS (Wideband Global Satellite) constellation to the extent of funding a sixth WGS satellite. This example reflects the need for coalition communications based on efficient open standards,” he says.
But while the international market is growing, the competition for those contracts is becoming more intense as well, says Perry. “International [ministries of defense] are always interested in U.S. communication technology, but there are capable international competitors. Harris is pursuing a few international [satellite communications] opportunities, but we are selective in the countries we serve. There are probably other opportunities than the ones we are currently pursuing.”
While many U.S. vendors are looking outside the United States, international manufacturers such as Stockholm-based C2Sat, a provider of shipboard stabilized satellite communications terminals, hope to make a breakthrough in the United States. “Our new Ku-band VSAT stabilized antenna product was launched in Washington D.C. in February last year, and since the introduction we have established many qualified leads in the [United States] A successful year 2008 would be a commercial breakthrough for C2Sat.”
One of the key questions for technology vendors is whether the military sector will offer them revenue growth in 2008 and constitute a growing part of their business. “Military purchasers are increasingly demanding high transmission capacity for marine and land-based units,” says Hanell. “C2Sat targets both the military and commercial sectors for terminals, and we expect that a significant part of our revenues this year will come from the military space side,” he says.
Martland also is confident that 2008 will be big for military revenus. “First we have to win the deals, but the short answer is yes, Newpoint expects to do more this year and next in the military space and more specifically military terminals,” he says. “I would expect this to be about 15 percent of revenues this year, possibly growing to as much as 40 percent in 2009.”
EMS’s Smith believes the company’s growth is related to its involvement in the B-2 program. “Our revenue will probably double with regard to the B-2 program,” he says. About 25 percent of the company’s military revenues in 2008 will come from terminal deals, “and it will go up as the market matures and moves to the higher frequencies where EMS Defense & Space Systems excels.”
With the nature of conflict changing, there has never been greater demands placed on satellite players to provide strong communications to warfighters. Effective communications can mean the difference between life and death, and satellite technology, with all its inherent competitive advantages in delivering communications, is the focal point of military forces communications strategy. It is a market which is growing and more vendors are looking for a piece of the pie. While the United States is undoubtedly the biggest spender in this area, other nations are also investing to improve their communications capabilities. It promises to be an interesting time for technology vendors as they look to jostle for position in this increasingly competitive market. â–