Governments Seek New Ways To Meet Communications Needs

By | April 1, 2010 | Government, Supplement

The cancellation of the TSAT (Transformational Satellite Communications System) military satellite program ushered in a new era for military satellite communications. As a harsh economic recession took root, governments suddenly found they no longer had the desire or reserves to have all encompassing next-generation military satellite communication systems, but bandwidth demands remain high, so governments around the globe are looking for more cost-effective solutions to meet the needs of armed forces spread throughout the globe. This means more partnerships with the commercial satellite sector as well as a greater openness towards new technologies.

Importance of Satellite Technology

While the TSAT program as a whole has been scuttled, technologies developed to date ultimately could be used in other programs, says Bill Ostrove, a defense analyst at Forecast International. “While some might say many of the goals of TSAT were overly ambitious, the program also successfully developed many new technologies that could be used in the future. The Pentagon is weighing a number of options to provide the capabilities to soldiers. New satellites could be built that include only one or two of the capabilities, rather than including all of the capabilities of TSAT. This would reduce costs of those individual satellites. The DOD could then focus on the capabilities needed the most. Some of the capabilities could also be included on satellites that are still being built, such as AEHF (Advanced Extremely High Frequency) and Wideband Global Satcom (WGS),” he says.

Worldwide government expenditures for space programs reaching a record $68 billion in 2009, according to Euroconsult’s report “Profiles of Government Space Programs: Analysis of 60 Countries & Agencies.” Government spending for defense-related space programs is estimated to have climbed to $32 billion in 2009, a 12 percent increase compared to 2008. The only downside is that budgets may actually begin to fall back in the coming years. “The sector should be prepared for funding to be reigned in over the next several years. Most governments will return to budget austerity after a short period of unusually massive spending to support their national economy, and we see the confirmation of what we anticipated some years ago: a period of lower investment in the coming years due to the completion of major space programs in many countries. This combination of factors could seriously impact both public and industry stakeholders,” says Steve Bochinger, managing director of Euroconsult North America and editor of the report, says.

But many of the capabilities that would have been provided by TSAT are still needed, and that will add to the already heavy dependence that militaries are placing on commercial technology. “Satellites works alongside other communications technologies in a more complementary way and sometimes, other technologies work better with satellite,”  “The latest example of using netted communications in the case of Iridium or push-to-talk capabilities from SkyTerra increases the reach of radios that would otherwise be more limited. The thinking has changed in the sense that as satellites’ coverage grew and cost have come down, its capacity was more closely examined and for better, has put the onus on operator and equipment vendor at making greater efforts to provide government and military users with more affordable, better performing, lighter solutions,” he says.

Commercial Vendors adapting

Astrium Services is heavily involved in the European military satellite communications market, such as the running of the Skynet system in the United Kingdom. Eric Béranger, CEO of Astrium Services says combining satellite with other technologies is now critical. “Satellite allows you to be quick when you have nothing else. If you want a certain level of security quickly, satellite can bridge the gap. Satellite also works very well with terrestrial networks,” he says. “Terrestrial technologies can be economic but cannot always meet the needs for mobility. Mobility often requires satellite. Today, when we offer welfare communications to French troops, we are using a combination of satellite and wireless radio technologies. We have satellite links and mobile network infrastructure on the ground, so we use this combination. For the United Kingdom, we serve areas where British troops are present, and some times we are using landlines, so we don’t need to use satellite. We meet the needs of our military customers and combining whatever infrastructure is needed in order to deliver the best value for money.”

The importance of a global perspective is becoming important when deploying next-generation technology. “A clear direction change is that we are witnessing the importance of having global ops capabilities that go beyond land- and sea-based architectures,” says Marshal Ward, COO, Integral Systems. “We are seeing a great interest in maximizing space assets for data communications as well as tremendous growth in near-Earth architectures such as aerial platforms, including UAVs and balloons, which can provide new connectivity and situational awareness capabilities. The architecture of space communications is changing, moving to a more Internet-like structure that can more easily and cost-effectively adapt to changing bandwidth demands while providing new routing and connectivity solutions.”

However, while satellite technology undeniably has an important role in the military communications strategy of governments, the onset of wireless technologies means things could change. “Within a few years, not only will demand be expected to strengthen, but wireless 4G networks and equipment will creep into the hands of customers and may lessen the importance of satellite,” Rousseau says. “It is often a Catch-22situation, whereby operators have to be innovative to provide users what they want without stretching their bottom because of large capital expenditures required to built and loft new satellites. New arrangements that can includes a portfolio of hosted payloads, anchor-tenant leases, smaller satellites or quick-turnaround programs is the best way to go for commercial satellite operators seeking to meet customer needs in this market,” he says.

New opportunities

Commercial operators will be given more of an opportunity to fill the bandwidth gap, as governments faced with smaller budgets seek help beyond communications. “International militaries as well as other government agencies that rely on satellites will be forced to consider alternative methods to launching and operating their own satellite networks. One method used will be to simply subscribe to the services provided by satellite operators. While this is most commonly used for communications satellites, there will be other applications as well. The U.S. National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) awarded three companies in December 2009 to provide space-based synthetic aperture radar (SAR) data to the U.S. government. While none of the private companies will be able to provide the capabilities of the now dead Space Radar program, they are much cheaper.”

Ward expects to see more creative partnerships between governments and the commercial satellite sector. “This is primarily driven by changing needs and a lack of appetite to pursue programs that take a long time to develop and are costly. Commercial-off-the-shelf solutions that are more efficient, cost less and speed time to market and services that negate the significant upfront capital costs to deploy complex programs will be especially important. And we see this happening now. The U.S. Department of Defense already hosts a Commercial Satcp, CEO/CTO Conference which explores enhanced partnerships, integrated architectures, satellite protection standards and mission assurance. It is very likely that you will see the Joint Space Operations Center (largely military manned) become tomorrow’s Consolidated Space Operations Center— and will include industry space owner-operators alongside military space operators,” he says.

Britt Lewis, Intelsat General’s vice president of strategy, says he expects the operator to be much more involved in system architectures. “In past years, commercial satellites communications would have been seen as an augmentation of a transformational architecture that would be Department of Defense-owned. We now see commercial satellite communications as a much more integral part of that architecture and the overall mission.” Lewis points to a recent contract from the U.S. Defence Information Systems Agency (DISA) — Commercial Broadband Satellite Program — as an example of the changing nature of deals between commercial and defence. “The Navy has awarded separate contracts to provide terminals on board ships, and we in turn, will provide a global network, which is broken up into 11 different regions. Our team will provide the satellite connectivity, teleport facilities, terrestrial connectivity to major Navy Points of Presence around the world as well as a Web portal which will provide situational awareness of what is going on in their network and with communications to any of their ships. These are the types of solutions that commercial satellite communications can bring into this area,” he says.

France also is adapting its military satellite communications strategy. “We are trying to achieve network enabled capability, which is to interconnect all of our different networks, starting with our satellite communications network and then our tactical deployable network and then our radio network,” says Michael Pascaud, Syracuse 3 program manager, DGA, French Ministry of Defence. “… Satellite communications capacity is gaining in importance against tactical deployable networks based on radio frequencies. Since the end of 1990s, we have changed our philosophy. We have not to cover just our main territories, but there is a need to cover where armed forces are in theater. You have to interconnect different territories,” he says. The French government has been influenced by the success of Skynet 5 and the public-private financing behind the system. “We need a dedicated system, as we would like to have some kind of control, but it is not a given that we will own this dedicated military system. … We are studying very carefully what the United Kingdom has done with Skynet 5 and then we will have to choose what we do next. We are trying to learn the lessons and we are considering going down the same road. We will take a decision probably in the next two-three years.”

Mark Holmes is the Associate Editor of Via Satellite magazine.

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