Military Continues To Influence Commercial Operators

By | September 1, 2008 | Government, Supplement

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.

Cyber Warriors

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.”

Military Influence

The U.S. government’s acquisition of commercial satcom services has evolved over time as the emphasis has shifted from being a purchaser of raw satellite bandwidth to being a purchaser of satellite services. In the past, the military’s goal was to be self-sustaining when it came to satellites; however, there has been a strategic change in this approach, says Joe Rouge, director of the NSSO. “We now expect to use commercial satellite capacity indefinitely. This is very different from the past,” he says. “Last year, we invited the industry in and asked them to outline the services they could provide. Now that we realize everything they can do, we have incorporated their capabilities into our strategy.”
As such, the government would like to have every assurance that the services are available and safe to use. The development of mission assurance criteria (MAC) has been the result, with more sensitive applications having a greater MAC requirement, says Rouge. “We would like service providers to be able to detect interference and have a geolocation system to show the source of the interference. Service providers also need to encrypt command links and provide backup power at their Earth stations,” he says. “We consider whether the service provider has in-depth knowledge of the workers at their facilities and also take into account what type of backup facilities the service provider has. If the service provider doesn’t meet these criteria it is harder to award them the bid, however, in some cases, no one meets the criteria but we still have to make a choice.”
Artel Inc. is one of three companies that are part of the U.S. Defense Information Systems Network’s (DISA) Satellite Transmission Services-Global (DSTSG) contract, a vehicle used to provide the military with secure capacity on commercial communications satellites as well as a mix of other platforms. “We have seen a large increase in the demand for IP-based connectivity,” says Abbas Yazdani, Artel’s president. “Our clients want more managed services, not just bandwidth. We see a lot more diversity in the requirements of our users. The government is encouraging [fixed satellite services] operators to enhance their security. With the mission assurance capabilities requirements, they want to understand such things as how your network operations center is secured, what are the procedures for intrusion detection, physical security, are there foreign nationals working in your facilities, and how do you protect the data?”
Commercial companies that want to work with the U.S. military also will have to make sure the government understands how stringent the companies are with their procedures, says Yazdani. “This is what MAC is all about. There are a lot of weighting factors,” he says. “The government wants to get the best value and has evaluation criteria to help them decide. In some cases price is the bottom line while in others the bidder with the best MAC may be preferred. But the law of supply and demand still applies. There are times when the government is faced with a low MAC, or even no MAC, supplier, but there is still a military mission to accomplish. Military assets are scarce and fully utilized, making the government resort to what is commercially available.”
As the government also comes to this realization that commercial satcom services will be increasingly intertwined in military, the Pentagon is looking for ways to collaborate with the commercial sector. “We see a number of ways to collaborate with the commercial satellite industry,” says Rouge. “In addition to mission assurance capabilities, we have been working together to develop a neighborhood watch program where government and the commercial satellite industry come together to share information about what is happening in space. For instance, if we see someone maneuvering in your area or space debris, the satellite owner may want to make a maneuver of their own. This sort of collaboration raises liability issues and we are starting to work through those. We want to make sure we understand each other’s expectations so those expectations can be met.”
Hosted payloads are another promising collaboration between government and industry. In June, Americom Government Services, a wholly owned subsidiary of SES Americom, received a three-year contract from the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center to host an experimental sensor on an SES Americom satellite scheduled to be launched in 2010. The program, known as the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload Flight Demonstration Program, will test a new type of passive infrared sensor that works at geosynchronous orbit. The sensor will be developed by Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) as a subcontractor to Orbital Sciences.
The hosted platform solution eliminated the need to launch a dedicated satellite to test the sensor, saving both time and money. “It takes the government a long time to design and procure a new satellite” says Tip Osterthaler, president of AGS. “The long delays limit their opportunities to qualify space hardware. Building and flying satellites is the only business we are in and we are very good at it. On average it takes us 30 to 36 months from initial business case to on-orbit. The average time for government program is 10 years. By partnering with a commercial operator like AGS, we can deliver programs on time, on or under budget, and shorten the overall cycle time,” he says.
Another hosted payload is intended to demonstrate the viability of conducting military communications through an Internet router in space. Intelsat General, a wholly owned subsidiary of Intelsat, received a three-year contract from the Pentagon in April 2007 to oversee the Internet Routing In Space (IRIS) project, which was funded as a Joint Capability Technology Demonstration project. Intelsat is the first commercial satellite company to be awarded a JCTD project. Cisco will provide commercial IP networking software for the IRIS project, while Seakr Engineering will manufacture a space-hardened router and integrate it into the payload. The payload will be placed on the IS-14 satellite being being built by Space Systems/Loral and scheduled for launch in the first quarter of 2009.
“The military is always going to build their own satellites, and they will also buy bandwidth and services from commercial satellite operators. Hosted payloads are the middle ground,” says Richard Dalbello, vice president of government affairs for Intelsat General. “… There is quit a buzz about hosted payloads right now, but they aren’t new. The scientific community has been flying hosted payloads for many years. NASA and other government agencies have a long history of collaborating and working together to get payloads into orbit. Hosted military payloads are really a thoughtful expansion of an already well established practice.”
In addition to technology demonstration, hosted payloads are perfect for enhancing military capabilities. The Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center has issued a request for proposals for hosted payloads to address the global shortage of UHF capacity and augment the U.S. Navy’s current UHF capabilities. Although the Mobile Users Objective System (MUOS) constellation is being developed and will replace the Navy’s aging UFO (UHF follow-on) constellation, the hosted UHF payloads will remain in orbit after MUOS is operational, providing the military additional capacity.
“Hosted payloads are a great way for the U.S. government and industry to work together,” says Jose Del Rosario, analyst for NSR. “But adding a military payload to a commercial satellite requires some modifications. For instance, military payloads require hardened electronics, which requires modifications to the satellite’s bus. The size of the solar arrays will likely need to be increased. Plus, you will likely lose some of the commercial capacity, but military satellites cost two to three times as much as a commercial satellite. The government can share in the financial burden of building and launching a commercial satellite as well as the extra cost of insurance and still get their asset into space quicker and cheaper.”

Expected Growth of Commercial Services

Depending on the source, uptake of new bandwidth by the U.S. military is forecasted to grow by as much as nine times the current level. Even a twofold increase will have a large impact on availability of commercial transponders, and the government will have to make some adjustments of its own in light of the overall demand for satellite transponders.
“The government is our single largest customer,” says Dalbello. “And while they are an extremely large and important customer, they represent only 12 percent of Intelsat’s total business. There has been an explosion of demand for cellular backhaul services in Africa and for video services in the Middle East. We have customers who are willing to pay top dollar and make long-term commitments for transponders in these regions. There have been times the government has needed bandwidth in specific regions and it simply wasn’t available. The only way to assure availability is to work with industry to plan for future requirements and to make long term commitments.”
The commercial players continue to push for the military to commit to long-term contracts for transponder as a way of guaranteeing availability, and “DISA has the full authority to enter into long-term contracts for bandwidth, subject to customer requirements and the availability of funds,” says Rebecca Cowen-Hirsh, DISA’s program executive for Satcom, Teleport & Services. In a report to Congress known as the Section 818 Report, DISA verified there are circumstances where it has been beneficial to enter into a long-term contract for bandwidth. However, it is not in the Department’s best interests to do long-term contracts for all cases of commercial satcom bandwidth leasing.
“The commercial satellite industry wants longer contracts, but to have a long-term contract with the government you must show a cost-value relationship or demonstrate a certain amount of savings,” says Rouge. “The spot market continues to be a good market. There has been a glut of capacity in the past, which has allowed us to get good price breaks. We realize the glut is rapidly decreasing but as long as it isn’t zero, there will be space available.”

Interested in learning more? SATELLITE 2009’s The Role of Commercial Satcom in Net Centric Warfare and Other Military Applications will focus on present and future military requirements and the role for both mobile and fixed commercial satellite systems in supporting the move to net centric warfare.  For more information, visit

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