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Space Architecture: Enhancements Through Commercial Involvement

By | July 1, 2002

      By Nick Mitsis

      At no other time in recent history has space-based technology played a more vital role than it has in the past 10 months. In fact, the same event last fall that momentarily paralyzed the U.S. Armed Forces quickly propelled them, along with their global allies, into a new era of quick response defense modes, often greatly enhanced by commercial communications satellite technology.

      We need to transform the way we do communications today,” says Capt. Cheryl Spohnholtz with the National Space Security Architect office. “There is some discussion on how commercial elements fit into this picture. The intent of the architecture, I think, is to initially put as much as you can on the military satellites that are up there and the commercial element would provide an augmentation.” In fact, $1.36 billion has been allocated to the U.S. Defense Department (DoD) for the sole enhancement of its total communications infrastructure. A large part of that, according to industry analysts, orbits around satellite applications.

      “When you are fighting a war, even in the most built-out country in the world with an established communication infrastructure, it can all be suddenly disrupted. We go in prepared with food, water, tanks and ammunition, as well as communication equipment,” says Mary Ann Elliott, president and CEO of Arrowhead Space and Telecommunications Inc. “So I believe there will be a major need for enhancements from the military community for both their military and their commercial satellite communications, at least in our lifetime. Who knows what they will think up in 15 or 20 years and maybe even longer.”

      The Forecast

      Indeed, there will be significant growth in the defense budget topline from 2002 to 2005, but that will likely level out starting in 2006, according to the Government Electronic Industries Association (GEIA). As in years past, GEIA released its annual 10-Year Forecast for DoD. But just when the committee was nearly finished with its matrix late last summer, it regrouped after September 11 and re-crunched the numbers to more accurately reflect the changing times. The committee members made a slight difference in the forecast: There is a greater emphasis put on satellite communications and the increased need for more commercial system involvement. This procurement increase was realized as the nation now addresses the new threat that has emerged in the arena of Homeland Security. The report predicts that topline growth throughout the next 10 years will be slow and steady, with a high priority for procurement over time.

      In FY ’02, the report predicts that the defense topline could reach between $340 million and $369 million in total DoD expenditures. By FY ’06, the topline could reach between $380 million and $500 million. The report, however, predicts slower growth between FY ’06 and FY ’12. The numbers during that timeframe can fall anywhere between $471 million and $558 million. The report says these figures exemplify the year-to-year increase of the overall DoD budget and when they are examined in that manner, a lower percentage rate is indicated, thus showing a slower growth rate than that from FY ’02 to FY ’06.

      The Requirements

      As DoD begins its budget allocations amid the ongoing war on terrorism, including space-based technology enhancements and an overall realization of the gaps within its communication infrastructure, many opportunities are surfacing as to where commercial industry innovations can play a vital role. “The Navy has a number of requirements,” says Mike Rupar, acting head of the Satellite and Wireless Networking section at the Naval Research Lab. “There are projections that were done by DISA and NAVSPACOM, and what they show is a lot of different uses for bandwidth. No longer will there just be the traditional communications (voice and message) and not just Internet traffic, but a wide variety of types of applications that are going to be running in dynamic scenarios.”

      U.S. Air Force Col. David Anhalt also recognized a growing need for a stronger communication infrastructure considering the bandwidth on demand problems currently facing the armed forces. “The U.S. military believes that military advantage is linked to the ability to use information and to push information from sensor systems to decision-makers and from decision-makers to shooters, and to do it rapidly and then to do it in a way that they can share that awareness among the forces. All of that takes bandwidth and we need to have a source for that bandwidth.”

      “During the Gold Rush mentality of the mid-1990’s, ubiquitous satellite communications and unlimited bandwidth seemed the destiny of the world,” says Col. David Anhalt, who has studied the issue for the Secretary of Defense’s Office of Net Assessment. “It didn’t turn out that way. Instead, the commercial sector satisfied its appetite for bandwidth largely with fiber optics and terrestrially based cellular phones. However, these services are not directly applicable to many important needs of the expeditionary warfighter.”

      This understanding of the need to increase bandwidth for military use has sprung from lessons learned in the field. From the Persian Gulf War to Operation Enduring Freedom, channeling data and communication among the active theaters has proven, at times, challenging. “During the Persian Gulf War–which we still think of as being a pretty high-tech war–an air wing on an aircraft carrier had less access to bandwidth for data transfer than anyone whose home was equipped with a standard telephone modem,” says Anhalt. “The entire theater during the Persian Gulf War was only able to muster about 100 Megabits per second. Looking ahead 10 years, we think that it could take 150 times more bandwidth than that in order to prosecute two major wars at the same time.”

      In addition to widening the bandwidth for military customers, informational satellite imagery produced by the commercial imaging companies is yet another venue where stronger military/commercial synergies can prove profitable. “Within six or eight weeks of 9/11, NIMA had ordered roughly 500,000 square kilometers of imagery over the crisis region,” says Joseph Dodd, vice president of federal alliances with Space Imaging Corp. “We significantly invested to tune up our infrastructure so that we were able to provide the Ikonos satellite imagery very quickly.”

      According to executives at Space Imaging, the company’s satellite was able to handle the military’s requirements by providing a total of 470,000 square kilometers of images for the duration of the contract. “We’re talking to the U.S. government about their out-year requirements for not only imagery, but for products as well. We’re encouraged by some of the budget actions that have been taken, especially on Capitol Hill, and are optimistic we will be with the government as a future partner as they recognize the value commercial imagery brings to the table,” adds Dodd.

      The defense sector in terms of geospatial and imagery information products and services is growing at roughly 7.5 percent, which is probably larger than the overall growth of the U.S. military budgets projected forward to 2005, even in the post-9/11 budgetary environment, according to industry analysts. “The key driver in this budget growth right now is this commercial remote sensing industry coming online,” says Edward Jurkevics, principal of Chesapeake Analytics Corp. “The U.S. government needs to act as an anchor tenant in this industry as it forms. They have to understand the importance of long-term contracts that are reliable and that the commercial remote sensing satellite operators can show to the financiers to say something like, ‘Listen, we’ve already sold 40 percent of the capacity of the next bird,’ so they raise the capital for the space segment.”

      The Future

      The appropriate role of the government in facilitating commercial space businesses is naturally an ongoing debate. Whether the debate more closely focuses on enhanced communications, military-specific satellite programs or surveillance and reconnaissance information products remains to be seen. “I, for one, will once again go on record as saying I believe that the military and the commercial satellite communications arena are linked together at the hip, at least during our lifetimes,” says Elliott. “Commercial satellite will always have that reach-back capability that is vital for successful communications. Who knows where we will stand 20 years from now.”

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