Making More Efficient Use of Milsatcom and Comsatcom

US Army Operation

Full dress rehearsal for Operation Golden Eagle in April 2014. Photo: U.S. Army

Much of the satellite communications (satcom) capability the United States military uses today is provided by commercial satellites. The U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) reports that the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) currently spends around $1 billion every year for this capability. While much of DoD’s needs are met with this commercial satellite communications (comsatcom) capability, the government spends nearly four to five times as much each year on government-owned systems.

The FY15 Presidential Budget requests nearly $4.5 billion in support of government owned systems. According to DISA, the cost of commercial satellite services for the DoD is expected to reach $3 to $5 billion over the next 15 years. The Defense Business Board (DBB) highlighted this projection in a presentation on how the DoD can make better use of its satcom assets.

The DBB’s task group responsible for the presentation “Advantage of Opportunities for Commercial Satellite Communications Services” highlighted several steps the DoD can take to rein in some of the costs associated with procuring satellite capacity. A key point was that no senior official currently claims sole responsibility for satcom. Rather, multiple DoD officials claimed responsibility for different facets, such as operations or acquisition. This, the study mentioned, creates confusion for those outside the DoD, and makes procurement more cumbersome than necessary.

DISA is often responsible for procuring satcom capacity to meet the military’s needs. The DoD prioritizes military satellite communications (milsatcom) and commercial satellite communications (comsatcom) differently based on the strengths of each system. Milsatcom, being the most secure and hardened against attacks, is used for high priority communiqué and classified data. Comsatcom plays a variety of other roles that are often more routine, but are still vitally necessary and may still require advanced security. The difference is, the DoD gives milsatcom precedence in planning and, as such, does not readily factor comsatcom into its long-term plans.

“One of the problems is that commercial capacity is providing the bulk of the capacity, but doesn’t necessarily get treated in the same manner or get viewed as essential,” said Brad Grady, senior analyst at Northern Sky Research (NSR). “The government has embraced this mentality that they do need to do better at prioritizing how comsatcom capacity fits into their bandwidth plans, but at the same time, the middle manager staff at DISA are probably under a lot of pressure from the higher-ups saying, ‘we have invested in [Wideband Global System] WGS, and other government owned and provided services. You need to be prioritizing this because it is something we own and already paid for.’”

Bandwidth-intensive services such as video are increasing the military’s demand for capacity, not unlike the commercial sector, but the way the government operates is very different. Milsatcom as an existing investment is prioritized over comsatcom, though the DBB, citing NSR, projects that commercial satcom will become the DoD’s primary source by the end of the decade.

“The warfighter really doesn’t care which satellite receives and/or transmits the signal as long as it is reliable, secure, and sufficient from a bandwidth perspective,” said Jay Wynn, managing director of Fairmont Consulting Group. “Closer joint planning and coordination of military-owned assets and commercial satcom systems can help to improve the availability and reliability of satcom for the warfighter, while also addressing security concerns to ensure that military operations are not compromised or threatened in any way.”

A concern for the DoD is the unpredictability of world events, making bandwidth projections difficult. There is also concern about keeping national security objectives secret. This complicates the procurement of comsatcom, because most satellites are, by design, long-term assets.

“The industry can’t plan ahead and build these extremely expensive spacecraft unless they have a commitment from DoD, but DoD doesn’t know where their surge capability is going to be needed, and they don’t know by how much,” said Frost and Sullivan Aerospace and Defense Senior Industry Analyst Brad Curran.

But the majority of analysts do agree that there are some steps the DoD can take to meet its own priorities without befuddling the industry.

“There is a lot of room for improvement in coordination between the two types of services,” said Bill Ostrove, aerospace and defense analyst at Forecast International. “One thing that the industry has been saying for a while is that the DoD needs to have a better long-term plan. Part of this is to lock up prices on commercial capacity long-term. By having a long-term plan, the DoD will also better be able to coordinate how much commercial capacity and how much military capacity it needs.”

For Curran, this is key. “The first thing they can try to do is get all the service chiefs and all the major combatant commanders to agree on how much [capacity] they need, and where they anticipate needing coverage to match up with current operational planning,” he added.

Grady notes that the mindset within the DoD is changing toward how it prioritizes comsatcom. Government is beginning to adapt certain commercial best practices that result in better clarity for the industry and less risk on the government side. This is a slow process, however. One market he pointed to, as an example, was oil and gas, whose satcom patterns in many ways mimic that of the government’s.

“Players in the oil and gas sector tend to move around a lot when they are in the exploration stage. Because of commercial competitive reasons, they don’t necessarily tell their service providers where they are going to be next month or three years down the road,” explained Grady. “Sometimes they don’t know, and sometimes they don’t want anyone else to know. The flipside is, they are willing to have three-year contract agreements and pay a little bit more for bandwidth to say ‘we are going to generally need this much bandwidth in kind of this region, but we will agree to pay a little bit more and give you a steady reliable source of income for the next three years.’”

This fairly nebulous pitch is enough for oil and gas companies to secure the capacity they anticipate needing without undermining their goals. It also gives satellite operators justifiable cause to allocate the resources. Satellite fill rates, according to the DBB, are around 80 percent in many geographies without DoD contracts. For the government to maximize the same efficiencies as the commercial sector, it needs to acknowledge that it has a substantial need for comsatcom in addition to milsatcom, and it needs to make commitments that prioritize comsatcom so that it is treated as essential infrastructure despite performing different functions. This would allow the government to pay a lower price than it currently does, which is a favorable outcome during this tough budget environment.

Better planning could lead to better consolidation and ease of use for the DoD. Grady mentioned that as remote sites improve their segmentation of network traffic, hybrid approaches to satcom use could become more regular. This would enable the DoD to better leverage the strengths of each system while keeping its content secure.

“There also should be a long-term cost advantage as commercial satcom capabilities are incorporated into military space segment and ground segment planning,” said Wynn. “[This would allow] DoD to focus increasingly scarce Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E) and procurement dollars on those military satcom assets that are most mission critical and difficult or impossible to supplement with comsatcom capabilities.”

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