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Harding: Addressing Satcom Demand

By | April 1, 2010

      Col. William Harding, vice commander, Military Satellite Communications System Wing, Space and Missile Systems Center, Los Angeles Air Force Base, directs acquisition planning, programming, budgeting and operational support for a $46 billion portfolio for military satellite communication systems. Harding discusses the challenges ahead and the future of military satellite communications following the end of TSAT (Transformational Satellite System).

      Via Satellite: What are the major challenges for the U.S. government in military satellite communications?

      Harding: From the users’ perspective, the challenges lie in sustaining and enhancing existing capabilities, and we have to do that within the existing resources and without putting any undue risk on the user segment. We have to synchronize the space segment with the ground segment and that includes terminals and mission control elements. The synchronization challenge goes a little bit further. We have to synchronize the platforms in which we are putting the terminals on. If we are putting a communications terminal on a Humvee, they have to come back out of theater, and the same is true of any aircraft coming into depot to get some new terminal lines, so the challenge for us is to improve systems capabilities that will allow us to evolve the current satellite segment we have and basically enhance the ground capabilities we are providing to the warfighters. Every time we do that and it is not synchronized there are risks of costs growing substantially if we come up with a unique solution. As we learned with TSAT, a single solution can be incredibly capable, but it comes with a real high cost. Given the fiscal realities, we are in more of a sustain and enhance mode, and trying to get most out of the systems we have.

      Via Satellite: Where are you in synchronizing these capabilities?

      Harding: It is an ongoing challenge. We have always attempted to bring terminals and spacecraft to the field at precisely the same time. That is usually not completely possible, but we have processes and tools where we look at synchronization. Every time a new budget comes out, we are trying to find the right balance of providing the capabilities in space and on the ground and keeping it as optimized as possible.

      Via Satellite: What impact have budgets had on your mission?

      Harding:The reality we are looking at now is that we are trying to provide the capabilities with the satellite systems we have now and add prudent enhancements and capabilities to those systems, rather than going off and pursuing a large TSAT program. TSAT essentially was going to push the fiber and the network and the routers into space. At this point, we are not taking this approach any more. Essentially now, the systems we are now providing are providing bandwidth to the networks that are kind of on the edge, and allow those networks to connect to each other and the Global Information Grid. That approach by keeping the network itself terrestrial, either on the ground, or at sea or the air, it allows each of the services to take advantage of the advances in commercial equipment and applications, and over time synchronize with their own efforts. They will be in a position to deliver those capabilities. The other thing it allows us to be in a position to locally implement any results of [Department of Defense] efforts in cyber defence, for example.

      Via Satellite: How does satellite work alongside other technologies in providing the latest capabilities?

      Harding: I think one of the big things that has really emerged in the last few years is the reliance on UAVs overseas and where we have operations going on. It allows us to plot out enemy positions and direct strike forces. The situation we have in Afghanistan and Iraq means we are streaming full motion video via commercial satellites from the UAVs all the way back to the places like Creech Air Force Base, where operators are operating those UAVs and then inserting it on to the global broadcast system and doing one way broadcast out over theater to provide that data to all the users that want to take advantage of it. It is kind of like DirectTV for the warfighter. That has been a real success story over the last few years.

      Beyond that, basically, instead of having those fiber and routers in space, we are really looking at a more distributed teleport based architecture that basically allows users outside their satellite boundaries to connect to the networks via circuits. The satellites are just part of a communications system that provide the bandwidth, but a lot of the magic and connecting up to the Global Information Grid and having interoperable systems will happen at the ground end.

      Via Satellite: Do you think this approach makes sense even given the current economic environment?

      Harding: Personally, I saw a benefit in both approaches, but when you spend a lot of development effort building Wideband Global Satcom and Advanced EHF, you want to get as much benefit out of the system as you can. So a lot of what we will be doing in terms of exploiting those systems over the coming years will be of great benefit to the [Department of Defense] as well as our allies.

      Via Satellite: With bandwidth demands ever increasing, how can satellites programs fill the gap?

      Harding: You go back over the last quarter of century of military satellite communications, and every time we have fielded new system, we have had roughly in order of magnitude increase in capacity on the communications satellites. So if you go back look at the DSCS-3 satellite, it was 100 Mbps (megabits per second). That was in the mid-1980s. Then we went to the DSCS-3 SLEP (Service Life Extension Program). They were launched in the early 2000s, and they added 250 Mbps. You get to Wideband Global Satcom, and that adds 2.1 Gbps (gigabits per second) between the Ka-band and X-band capabilities we have on there. Every time, there has been an order of magnitude jump. The same thing happened with Milstar. We launched them in the early 1990s with 4 Mbps. Then Milstar block two got us up to 40 Mbps, and now later in the summer, we will launched Advanced EHF which has 400 Mbps. Whether that keeps up with demand and requirements, is always up in the air. The analogy I have used is that it is almost like with computers, the more capable of a satellite we put there, the more innovative capabilities people think of to use them for.

      We have the jump in computer technology every 18 months or so where it is doubling, but it still has a hard time keeping up with the video games and applications that the software writers are coming up with. You can see something similar type happening on the satellite side, where we are always chasing demand, and we think that is a healthy pressure to have on us.  But so far, we have been able to keep up with the needs particularly well. We have three Wideband Global Satcom satellites in orbit now. A third one launched in December. That is 12 [gigahertz] of instantaneous capacity. We will launch the first two block 2 configuration satellites in the 2012 timeframe, and they will also support wideband ISR. We have that first AEHF launch in the summer, and then we have one a year for a couple of more years. That initial constellation will give us a parallel increase in the amount of bandwidth on the protected side.
      Via Satellite: Are governments embracing commercial satellite more when looking for solutions?

      Harding: Up until now, we have always looked at commercial as what we are able to buy on the spot market, so one of the challenges we are facing now is, I think, collectively no one is sure whether the spot market will be the same in the future as it has in the past. So the commercial market was pretty robust over the first 10 years of this century. They kind of made a judgment in terms of demand, but fiber came into play. I think the commercial market has right-sized itself. I am not sure we can continue to look at buying on the spot market, and I don’t know if that is the best solution anyway. We are off looking at a blend of [Department of Defense] and commercial satellite communications solutions to get the right mix of cost, schedule and performance. Overall, I think we are becoming much more open to things like lease-to-buy and anchor-tenant type arrangements and commercial hosting.

      We put out a request for information (RFI) with the commercial industry recently. We are assessing the responses. We have got 21 responses so far from industry. There are a lot of good ideas out there, and I think our department is going to have to open up its aperture to how we bring in the commercial end of things. My thinking is the right answer is going to be a mix of both milsatcom and commercial. We will have some level of milsatcom capability to provide the basic backbone. In the case of protected, there really isn’t a commercial system that will provide the protected stuff on its own. We will have to figure out the commercial capability. Hosted options and innovative solutions with the industry will all be the mix as we go through the process.

      Via Satellite: Can you integrate handheld devices into your plans?

      Harding: I don’t know of anything concrete going on in that area, but I understand the sentiment. The next generation of systems we are building will be used by the next generation of kids coming into the military, and that is the way they are used to communicating, whether iPhones or Facebook. We have to realize it is a different mode of communication and extra applications and in the future, we may well have to figure out how to leverage those things to make sure we are providing the tools that the next generation of warfighters can use.

      Via Satellite: What trends do you see emerging in the next year?

      Harding: I mentioned UAVs. We are seeing an increase in the wideband spectrum for those capabilities. There are requests to do communications on the move to smaller terminals. We want to be able to use them under different conditions. Right now, we are in the process of putting together something called the Joint Space Communications Layer ICD (Initial Capability Document). As they finish that process, we will analyze alternatives this year to look at where we will go milsatcom-wise. I think the big thrust of that effort will be what changes in dependent systems has taken place. For instance, space radar went away a few years ago. That had a big impact on the demand equation for milsatcom, so the number of UAVs that are out there will play into what the demand equation will be as well as the Army’s Future Combat Systems. There have been changes across the board. We have to let our requirements community go through their process and have to figure out what the right answers are and then go back to the acquisition side of things to figure out how to best address those needs. This is all supposed to happen over the next calendar year.

      We passed some important milestones with DSCS last year. We passed over 200 years cumulative on-orbit experience with DSCS. Over Milstar, we have over 50 years of experience. As we deliver Wideband Global Satcom and Advanced EHF, there are three benefits we gain. Firstly, you have the order of magnitude increase in capacity. There are two other things. There are substantial more coverage opportunities, more beams and more antennas, etc. I was talking to the First Marine Expeditionary Force guys about how they used Milstar during Iraqi Freedom, and they said how beneficial it was down to the tactical level and they could do leapfrog maneuvers across the desert. In the first Iraqi war, they had to stop and erect a 50-foot line-of-sight antenna to communicate with the brigade next to them. With Milstar available, they were able to keep going. However, if a carrier battle group in the Mediterranean needed to retarget their Tomahawk missiles and had a higher priority on the systems, they could move the beams and the Marines would lose coverage.

      When you get to AEHF and Wideband Global Satcm, there are many more antennas and coverage opportunities. It is not just capacity, it is coverage as well. Finally, the new systems come with more flexible mission planning, so you can burrow and trade resources within theater, so this is new. So if CENTCOM (U.S. Central Command) wants to transition resources from Iraq to Afghanistan on the ground, they can do that without going back to Colorado Springs asking for a reapportionment.

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