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Military Bets: Balancing Bandwidth Needs with Increased Efficiency

By | November 19, 2013

      U.S. DoD’s needs for innovation investments to maximize all assets (Milsatcom & commercial) has never been greater.


      With the drawdown in Afghanistan complete and new hot spots emerging, U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) military planners must wrestle with both shrinking defense budgets and fewer ground forces at their command. The need for innovation investments to maximize all assets – from milsatcom to commercial satellite capabilities – has never been greater.

      “We’re focused on how we can be more efficient with our bandwidth, how we compress data more efficiently, and how we can get access to places that have less-than-adequate infrastructure,” says Bruce Bennett, program executive officer for DISA, who oversees the bulk of DoD’s strategic satcom transport infrastructure for warfighters.

      With fewer eyes on the ground, the military will deploy increasingly more sensors. That is especially true as the U.S. military pivots towards Asia, a far-flown geography six times the size of Europe, and two and a half the expanse of North America. Having a mix of space and terrestrial, access and flexibility are key.

      “I don’t care if you give me another 10 WGSs, it would be doubtful that we could cover all the scenarios in the Pacific,” says Bennett. He adds that fewer ground forces and the sheer size of the Asia landscape will increase the government’s need to partner with commercial operators.

      Assessing the Asia region, NSR senior analyst Claude Rousseau doesn’t believe the bandwidth concerns are as dire as some think, considering the number of Ka-band systems coming online in the next few years. NSR reports that from 2012 to 2022, the global government and military satellite communications market will grow from 632,000 in-service units to close to 1.1 million by the end of 2021.“There are going to be a lot more sensors on airplanes and UAVs, which will make it much easier for anyone in the region to scan and see who is out there,” he notes.

      Miguel Angel Garcia Primo, chief operating officer of Spanish government satellite operator, HisdeSat, says there has alredy been an increase of activity. “We’re seeing more requests for providing connectivity to mobile platforms, be it land, sea or aircraft, and the need to use smaller and smaller terminals with higher and higher data rates,” he says.

      Greater Commercial Collaboration

      At least one global operator, Astrium Services, personifies the power of a public-private partnership (PPP) model. For the last nine years, the company has operated first the Skynet 4 and then the hardened Skynet 5 constellation for the U.K. Ministry of Defense, an approach that Simon Kershaw, executive director, government communications, Astrium Services, contends has enabled his company to better anticipate and respond to the U.K. military’s changing requirements.

      “The PPP model can often work very well for that because we are able to move much faster or anticipate more than the institutions themselves can. We’re able to be very nimble, very flexible and be in front when we see a requirement,” says Kershaw.

      “We’re seeing much more rapid deployments around the world,” he adds, noting that when something happens in a region, it requires a quick response – one that embodies flexibility. In addition, operators need a complete picture of the situation, which underscores the need for integrating UAV imagery with other sources such as telemetry and communications on the ground.

      Multi-band, Smaller Terminals on the Rise

      The Pentagon is the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense in Arlington, Va.

      The Pentagon is the headquarters of the United States Department of Defense in Arlington, Va.

      As the demand for bandwidth to support high-definition sensors grows, satellite operators and terminal manufacturers alike are achieving much greater throughput using much smaller systems. More rugged, lightweight, high bandwidth satcom on the move can be found in terminals such as Astrium’s SCOT Patrol terminals being deployed on six U.K. Royal Navy ships over the next five years, and their smaller airborne equivalent, AIR Patrol, flying with the Canadian Department of National Defense. “It uses the world’s first three-Axis carbon fiber antenna – the lightness of it makes it an easy fit for a small vessel,” explains Kershaw.

      Military users also need multiple frequency bands: they want the resilience of X-band, but also the bandwidth and lighter terminals offered by Ku- and Ka-bands. Anticipating this multiband requirement, Astrium equipped the Royal Australian Navy with its Maritime ASTIS wideband satellite communications terminals that support both X- and Ka-band frequencies.
      Andrew Ruszkowski, VP of global sales and marketing for X-band operator XTAR, contends that X-band offers the ideal environment for airborne and other mobile applications given that it “allows for high throughput in high rain zones, with very limited potential for interference.”

      But he also admits that the one lesson from the decade-long conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq is that warfighters “should never be limited by bandwidth or frequency band when operating in the field.” An advocate for military users sharing milsatcom and commercial bandwidth in a single pool, he also believes this approach to asset sharing will require building in flexibility into systems, and avoiding deploying systems limited to one frequency band.

      “Systems need to be able to switch between Ku-band to Ka-band to X-band without regard to whether it is a commercial or government-owned milsatcom platform,” says Ruszkowski, pointing out that the technology exists but the cost of multi-band systems must come down. “Some big purchases are being made, which is smart on the part of DoD, and that’s going to drive down the costs of those systems,” he adds.
      The Navy’s Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) unmanned aircraft system, Triton, a variation of GlobalHawk, is an exception: it will be multi-band capable when it initially becomes operational in 2016, with full deployment scheduled for 2020. That is in stark contrast to the Predator UAV platform, which operates only in Ku-band.

      Smaller UAV Capabilities  

      In this changing landscape, UAVs, from manned to unmanned platforms, will play a pivotal role. “There is going to be more demand for UAVs and that’s already accelerated, as UAVs and even manned aircraft conducting reconnaissance and surveillance missions continue to replace the boots on the ground,” says Rousseau.

      The data rates now possible for GEO-based manned and unmanned aerial systems impresses Ruszkowski, who has seen systems well below one meter in size achieve data rates of up 10 Megabits or higher compared with 512 kilobits five years ago.

      The majority of new Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) coming online in the next few years will be on smaller platforms, with a huge portion of the demand coming from the U.S. DoD, which will account for 70 percent of the $64 billion in new systems to be built between 2011 and 2020.

      The Teal Group forecasts for 21,791 military mini or small UAVs over the next nine years at a value of $1.8 billion, and for 1,676 civil (government/commercial) small UAVs valued at $1.1 billion in that same time period.

      Inmarsat is working with AnsuR, a Norwegian provider of optical and IR video and image communications technology for small UAV platforms, on new data-transfer approaches that use small satcom devices and smaller antennas.

      AnsuR’s UAV imaging communications solution takes a novel approach of first sending “previews,” or limited imagery that analysts can then zoom in on and identify specific areas of interest explains founder Harald Skinnemoen, noting that users then can pull higher-resolution imagery of those sites while the UAV is still in flight.

      “With smaller bandwidth systems, normally you would have to compromise on the quality of the imagery but in our case not,” says Skinnemoen. “You can focus the bandwidth capacity on the essential part of the information, which means you can get it much faster and with much better quality.”

      Skinnemoen says the solution will be test flown on an Inmarsat SB200 terminal over L-band this winter. The company also has sold a prototype of its system to the Norwegian Defense Forces, to Indonesia, and installed it with the United Nations for emergency management and disaster response logistics support. Skinnemoen adds that AnsuR will market the technology to both ground system and UAV providers.
      AnsuR’s push-and-pull ISR approach is in stark contrast to current “brute force” solutions used by large UAVs to push all available visual information as high-resolution imagery for later analysis.

      Ruszkowski is also excited by the new technology being developed for manned platforms. “A lot of smart people are making good decisions in that market,” he says.

      Rising Profile of Ka

      Ka-band systems will continue to play a prominent role in military satcom as more systems come online. They will no doubt serve the United States well as it begins to build a stronger defensive posture in the Asia-Pacific region. Global operators of flexible constellations are well positioned to provide coverage to Asia, while other players with coverage gaps are taking steps to expand their capabilities.

      Hisdesat, which operates over X- and military Ka-band today, is looking at more powerful satellites that can offer greater throughput, particularly over eastern Asia.

      “We’re also looking to incorporate satcom capacity in UHF in our future satellites,” says Primo, noting that the UHF frequency band is attractive because it uses smaller terminals for command-and-control applications such as Blue Force Tracking and is ideal for individual soldier voice-to-voice communications.

      XTAR’s two satellites today cover Denver in the west eastward through Singapore, leaving a hole in Southeast Asia. “It’s a very high priority for us to take a smart, strategic approach to addressing what we think is going to be a growing demand for bandwidth in that area,” says Ruszkowski, emphasizing that as XTAR refreshes and grows it fleet, it is considering many scenarios, including hosted payloads and partnerships between international parties. “We don’t consider ourselves just X-band. Our mandate is to support the government users and we can do that through frequency bands in addition to X.”

      NewSat, the largest independent satcom provider in Australia, currently serves the U.S. military through prime contractors such as Harris CapRock, DRS and Boeing. Diego Paldao, vice president for the Americas and Europe, says NewSat will have more capacity when its Ka-band satellite, Jabiru 1, launches in 2014.

      “We’re working with a couple of clients today to evaluate how our next-gen system would perform in northeast Asia and the Horn of Africa,” says Paldao, who is fielding more inquiries about capabilities NewSat can offer if the military needs to bring in their own equipment and platforms.

      “The Jabiru fleet will be about bringing much needed capacity to various markets, without dictating a specific platform. WGS is a great constellation and other Ka-band satellites along with Jabiru will fulfill any shortfalls,” he adds. “If we learned anything from times of conflict, it is that communications is key and there doesn’t ever seem to be enough when you get involved in surveillance and reconnaissance type missions. We have the ground infrastructure capability today to provide that support if it’s needed. The launch of Jabiru 1 will allow us to bring much needed Ka band capacity into Africa, Middle East and South West Asia. Ka band platforms such as the Navy’s Triton system are a perfect match to Jabiru 1.”

      Bennett believes the growth in new high-throughput satellites and the flexible coverage those systems will offer gives him hope that the DoD will be able to meet the warfighter’s needs, even in a reduced funding environment.

      “I’m really optimistic,” he says, pointing to the “order-of-magnitude” increase in the number of vendors now on the Future COMSATCOM Services Acquisition (FCSA) and other contracting vehicles.

      The DoD, he asserts, will continue to innovate in how it uses transponder space, where the former reliance on fixed transponders over a fixed location are replaced with new Ka-band systems offering higher density frequency reuse, smaller beam slots and more of them. “Our reliance on the commercial sector is not going to go down; we need to look at how to be more efficient, more effective, more resilient and more reliable. Problems are coming at us faster and faster; we just can’t sit back and rely on last year’s answers,” Bennett concludes. VS

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