International Milsatcom: Five Countries, Five Programs, Five Viewpoints

By | November 1, 2011 | Feature, Telecom

While the United States may invest more than any other nation in milsatcom assets and capacity, there is a great deal of innovation to be seen in international milsatcom strategies. As nations struggle to fund next-generation milsatcom programs, we look at how some countries are trying to meet the bandwidth needs of their armed forces.

The economic downturn is forcing governments and armed forces around the world to reassess their capabilities and, more importantly, their ability to pay for it. As nations grapple with debt issues, getting the most from milsatcom capabilities at a lower cost has become a priority, however, lowering costs while increasing available bandwidth is not an easy equation to master. This equation presents a challenge to many governments around the world as they try to meet the requirements of their armed forces.

Australia

Australia has recently built its reputation for its open-minded attitude towards satellite. The Australian Broadband Guarantee (ABG) has put satellite front-and-center when bringing broadband to remote areas in Australia. It has been equally progressive using satellite in its defense strategy. In April 2009, the Australian Defense Force (ADF) signed a deal to purchase a specialized UHF communications payload aboard an Intelsat satellite scheduled for launch in 2012. As part of a hosted payload contract valued at approximately $167 million, Intelsat will arrange for the construction and integration of the UHF payload with its satellite.

Maj. Gen. Mike Milford, head of ICT operations division for the Australian Defense Force, says that in terms of whether the military would consider more hosted payload type deals, it is important to understand that, “hosted payloads offer comparative advantages over the traditional ‘owned and operated’ solutions including shared costs and risks between defense and industry, and the ability to leverage commercial satellite industry experience. At the same time, a hosted payload agreement puts a number of constraints on the commercial operator beyond those to which they would normally be exposed in a purely commercial sale. These include limitations in the positioning of the satellite, increased security requirements and stringent response requirements to support configuration changes and communications channel maintenance.”

For future payloads, ADF will carefully consider capability, cost, sovereignty and the security environment, provided these issues are adequately addressed, Milford adds.

The partnership between Intelsat and the ADF is a textbook example of a close relationship between the government and the commercial satellite sector and Milford does not rule out further partnerships between the ADF and other entities in the commercial satellite sector. “Defense is always mindful of the need for affordable solutions to meet new and emerging requirements, and openly encourages innovation in the nature of commercial response to capability needs. The hosted payload solution offered by Intelsat is an example of an innovative approach that met the extant Defense requirement. Other partnering proposals that involve mature technologies to meet a known requirement and can be operated without a need to change the skill sets of the Defense workforce are worthy of consideration,” he says.

Australia released a Defense White Paper in 2009 and currently has a Defense Capability Plan (DCP) in place which highlight Defense’s requirements for global and beyond line-of-sight (BLOS) communications. The ADF is set for a busy couple of years. “The main challenge over the next two years is taking the space segment components from Joint Project 2008 from the acquisition stage to the in-service stage and achieving final operational release to the warfighter. These are traditional project management challenges rather than satcom specific. The payloads being acquired will offer the ADF global capabilities far greater than what was previously serving Defense needs and the operation of this complex capability in terms of managing power, frequency and beam allocation will be a new skill to master,” Milford says.

Improving terminal capability is also at the heart of the challenges facing the ADF during the next two years. “Joint Project 2008 is a multi-phase program which is delivering WGS and the IS-22 capabilities together with a major wideband ground station in Western Australia. The program is also now finalizing the DCP proposals, which seek to equip the ADF with a fleet of satcom terminals ranging from small to large aperture systems, designed to match the ADF requirements for bandwidth and mobility. The emerging trend is a diminishing reliance on commercial wideband services to conduct operations, moving towards a balance of purpose designed military systems and commercial providers hosting both military payloads and conventional commercial services,” Milford says. 

France

France is one of Europe’s major powers and also very much at the heart of the European milsatcom landscape with its Syracuse program. France also is also partnering with Italy to bring more capability to its defense forces with the launch of two new satellites imminent, as part of this collaboration. There are already two Syracuse satellites in orbit, as well as a full ground segment.

Christophe Debaert, Syracuse III team leader, Ministry of Defense, France says the French MoD is working on a number of different initiatives right now. “We are working on complementary systems in cooperation with Italy through the Sicral-2 satellite, and the Ka-band Athena-Fidus satellite. The Sicral-2 and Athena Fidus contracts were awarded in the last year. The main timeline is regarding the launch of Sicral-2 and Athena-Fidus planned in 2013. We are beginning to work on ‘on-the-move’ stations. Since late 2010, in Afghanistan Venus ‘on-the-move’ stations have worked well. We are planning to soon have a contract on the Ka-band ground segment. After this, it is more about the preparation of the future and operations post-Syracuse.”

The post-Syracuse future is a key challenge facing the French MoD, and contracts could be awarded in a relatively short timeframe. “One (of the main challenges) will be the renewal of the Syracuse satellites, which will occur by 2019-2020. We are now looking at possible orientations for this renewal. This orientation phase will begin this year, and will be closed during the next two years,” says Debaert.

One of the other issues that the French MoD has to examine is the potential use of Ka-band capacity going forward in its operations. Debaert says Ka-band offers a number of advantages. “Most of the capacity used for milsatcom has been UHF or X-band, both in terms of ground and tactical infrastructure. But, more and more, we need high data rate throughput to complete X-band infrastructure. High data rate communications will be done with Ka-band. Ka-band seems to be the preferred technology and to have a big future for military operations. It provides scalability in systems, as well as this high data rates,” he says.

Could France partner with a commercial satellite operator for Ka-band capacity? The question is more of a global issue, says Debaert. “It is part of discussions regarding acquisition processes for buying capability for operational forces and it is not limited to Ka-band. For military Ka-band, commercial operators have shown interest to provide it on-demand. So, it is mainly an acquisition strategy issue. Partnerships are an option. We have to consider all the options. If a partnership is determined to be the best cost-effective approach, we can go in this direction.”

Encouragingly for the satellite sector, the importance of satellite in defense networks appears to be on the increase. “The philosophy in France is to have satellite integrated into the global network; satcoms is a part of the global communications network. It has found a place between the tactical level networks and the global network infrastructure,” says Debaert. “The importance of satcoms has increased in the last two to three years, and will continue to increase. It is now fully integrated into global networks.” 

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom implemented the Skynet 5 program, which has been one of the most innovative milsatcom programs to be announced in recent years. Paradigm Secure Communications was established to deliver the Skynet 5 service for the U.K. Armed Forces as part of a 4 billion British pound ($6.2 billion) Private Finance Initiative (PFI) arrangement. Paradigm also has the ability to sell capacity not used by the U.K. MoD to other parties.

Three Skynet 5 satellites were launched between 2007 and 2008. The challenges for the program are more related to the fact that during the next couple of years, U.K. troops will start to be withdrawn from Afghanistan. Keith Norton, president, Paradigm Secure Communications, says this will lead to a change in what communications will be required going forward. He says, “The Skynet construct/contract supports that very well. What we will see moving forward is a change from boots on the ground to eyes on the ground. The communications bandwidth required would probably be pretty much static over that period. It possibly even increases.”

Paradigm is working on a number of new systems to better support this new dynamic. “We have a piece of work going on at the moment where we are developing a range of services on a micro-sat terminal, which is basically a flat antenna that is packable into a stowable case that can be taken onboard aircraft. That kind of terminal can be put on a small vehicle and taken out on patrol and put to one side, where you can set up a link very quickly. I think one of the things we are seeing coming out of Strategy Defense Security Review (SDSR) is there are big question marks on the large operational platforms, and to keep managing those platforms will be a key challenge for the U.K. MoD,” Norton says. “To that end, one of things we have started to work on is a ‘remote asset data service’ which will provide logistics management capability in near real-time. That will allow the MoD for the first time to do real-time asset management of large groups of vehicles and effectively maximize their availability to the operational theater. This would be of huge benefit in the context we see, with the numbers of platforms being severely reduced.”

One of the unique dimensions of the Skynet 5 system is the ability to generate revenues by selling capacity to third parties. Paradigm has sold significant amounts of capacity into the U.S. DoD. It has also made sales into other parts of NATO, NATO itself, Canada, The Netherlands, Portugal, Australia, Slovenia, etc. This is an important aspect of Paradigm’s strategy, Norton says. “The U.S. DoD is the largest procurer of military satcom bandwidth in the world by far. And we see that as an important part of our third party marketing strategy going forward in terms of developing our revenue streams. We certainly have capacity available at the moment. Our sales department is actively selling into all of those markets.” 

Brazil

Brazil is the largest country in Latin America with a population of close to 200 million people. It has a number of challenges during the next two years as it looks to boost its milsatcom capabilities. Lt. Col. Luciano Martins Menna, milsatcom operations manager, Brazilian Ministry of Defense, says key decisions are likely to be made by the Brazilian MoD in the next few years, including the possiblity of a dedicated Brazilian communications satellite.

“For the next two years and beyond, we consider the following major challenges: Firstly, we have to consider the establishment of a Brazilian communications satellite, sharing military and government information. Secondly, we have to consider the acquisition of maritime and airborne milsatcom stations (X- or Ka-band). We also want to improve the ground segment,” says Menna. “We intend to achieve these capabilities through the strategic planning for the Command and Control Military System (SISMC). Due to the large extent of our territory and the ever-increasing requirements for operational communications, satcom has played a significant role on joint and single operations over these last few years. As part of the Satellite Military Communications System (SISCOMIS), satcom is integrated to the defense operational network, making information available wherever this net reaches.”

Launching dedicated military and government satellites is now an option that is being seriously considered, and Menna says Brazil is studying the viability of launching communications satellites along with other government agencies.

Improving border security is another key reason for ramping up milsatcom capacity, according to Menna. “Brazil is looking to increase its border and maritime surveillance capability, for which we have planned the Border Monitoring System (SISFRON), an Army initiative to protect our borders, and the “Blue Amazon” Management System (SISGAAz), which our Navy has created to protect our shore and our exclusive economic zone in the Atlantic. Both systems will use milsatcom to make information flow, particularly for beyond line-of-sight communications,” adds Menna.

Japan

Japan is one of Asia’s regional powerhouses, and despite a tough time economically, it aims to bring more capacity online during the next three years. Developing a new X-band satellite communications network will be a priority in the next two to three years. “The MoD/SDF (Self Defence Force) uses three commercial X-band satellites: ‘super-bird B2’, ‘super-bird C2’ and ‘super-bird D’. The design life of both ‘super-bird B2’ and ‘super-bird D’ comes to an end in 2015. Therefore, it will be the main challenge for us to develop a new X-band satellite communications network by 2015,” says Kazuhisa Shimada, director, Defense Policy Division, Bureau of Defense Policy, Japan’s Ministry of Defence.

Shimada says the Japanese MoD is looking to secure budgetary approval for new satellites, despite these economic conditions. He adds, “The MoD plans to develop two satellites through a PFI project. The budget acquired in 2011 is for a payload, which will be integrated into the bus of the superbird-B2 satellite replacement. This will be produced in a later timeframe. The budget that is to be acquired in 2012, but that we have decided to request this August, is for the PFI project that includes developing space segment (superbird-B2 and D satellite replacement satellites), ground segment, as well as operational service, etc.”

Satellite remains a vital part of Japan’s defence strategy, and Shimada admits advances in satellite technology are able to benefit the Japanese MoD. He says, “In recent years, wider activities by the MoD/SDF such as international peace cooperation activity require an enhanced satellite communications network — more than before — in order to bring situational awareness from the local units in remote areas with promptness and accuracy. Satellite communications will play an important role for MoD/SDF with regards to the interaction of individual military assets. We will tackle challenges we face such as integration of various communication systems and enhancement of high-speed communication and large volume data communication based on mounting SDF demand for communications,” says Shimada.

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