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NATO Outlines Satcom Needs and Goals

By Caleb Henry | April 6, 2015
      NATO HQ

      NATO’s headquarters. Photo: Frode Overland Andersen

      [Via Satellite 04-06-2015] The North American Treaty Organization (NATO) is in the midst of an evolution. The alliance of 28-nations is pivoting not only in how it operates, but also structurally. NATO is moving toward greater centralization and some potentially significant infrastructure decisions. As an organization that relies extensively on satellite communications, NATO is looking at how to better leverage commercial resources and be ready for new technologies. Via Satellite talked with NATO Communications and Information Agency’s Director of Infrastructure Services, Gregory Edwards about the changes afoot within the organization and what that means for how it leverages satellite communications.


      VIA SATELLITE: What does NATO do to manage its satcom needs today?
      Satcom at NATO is done in a traditional manner. From a military perspective, satcom is required in a few ways. If it is a project, our mission is to provide technical expertise to develop solutions with Allied Command Transformation (ACT). ACT establishes the basic requirements and then they work with my experts to develop a technical solution, and if we want to send a proposal out to industry, that process is approved through our various committees, and then we are able to issue an invitation for bids for that capability. Similarly, if we are upgrading something, it would follow the same process.

      We have a static infrastructure that provides connectivity to our commands throughout NATO, located throughout our 28 nations. That static piece is one we sustain from day to day, and an important piece of that static communications is satellite. Deployments for operations have become a somewhat primary use of satellite communications for NATO, such as what’s going on in Iraq or Afghanistan and Africa.

      We depend on industry heavily. Of course, we do have our ability from a ground infrastructure perspective to allocate bandwidth and do the separations that are necessary to get our abilities to deployed forces. We do a lot of that in our own operations centers for certain missions. Some of that capability we lease.

      VIA SATELLITE: Like the near-rampant pace of demand in the commercial sector, the need for bandwidth for military applications is growing. What do you see as the top drivers?
      We are seeing an increase in the use of deployed satcom for military communications as well as commercial through what at NATO we call the functional application services. When we have forces deployed, they may go with short to no notice. It is difficult to plan your telecommunications needs when you don’t know where you are going. Otherwise you would have fixed plans in place and done all the necessary coordination for satcom bandwidth capability.

      Rapid deployment is a key driver for NATO’s commercial military satcom requirements, and what is driving the capacity is that we are moving toward more centralization in NATO. The functional applications are now pushed forward.

      In satellite communications, cost is really the moderator for us as to which direction we go and how much we use. It depends upon finding efficiency and balance.

      VIA SATELLITE: What does this centralization look like and how is it being implemented?
      Edwards: Centralization can be visualized as a central call centre/service desk, core data centres providing virtualized services (ala cloud concept), and high-capacity and resilient network transport services.

      VIA SATELLITE: What are NATO’s Connect The Force goals and how does satellite help meet them? 

      Edwards: Keeping NATO Connected — enabling NATO personnel to connect to the ICT networks that they use on a daily basis. This includes providing secure and robust communications to the political decision-making bodies and headquarters personnel, as well as the NATO Response Force and NATO operations in the Balkans and off the coast of Somalia.

      Goals are to:

      – Rapidly extend NATO IT services to forces deployed under the Readiness Action Plan.

      – To enable establishment of an Eastern and Southern focus for NATO with continuous joint presence.

      – Provide core enterprise services (e.g. voice, video, data, collaboration, and functional application services) to established Very High Readiness Joint Task Forces (VJTF) that will significantly enhance responsiveness of the NATO Response Force (NRF).

      Satellite communications is the corner stone of our transport architecture for extending services to deployed forces on short-notice and in unstable environments.

      VIA SATELLITE: Has spending on satcom increased, decreased or stayed the same for NATO in recent years, and why? How has cost influenced spending?
      Our requirements are growing, and have grown. Will they continue to grow? We believe so because if you look at what is going on in the world currently, with Russia and the Ukraine situation, etc., those were not anticipated activities, and there are still activities in other locations.

      We try to find a way to use commercial, perhaps in a cost sharing type of model. Often times we will want to do that with our 28 nations to avoid a total build-out of satcom infrastructure ourselves. And then when we go to the commercial side and we have to buy that capability, it is important we have the proper coverage for a specific mission area. The cost really remains the driver for us, and it’s still seen as expensive these days for commercial compared to milsatcom.

      VIA SATELLITE: How can NATO and industry collaborate more effectively?

      Edwards: Industry needs to help us in that regard, and what I’m really [wondering] is if industry is able to come up with a model that when demand is low, we can throttle back through some cost sharing relationships they develop. Essentially what we try to do is go into cost sharing where we pay a little now, and then we ask a nation to give us an increase in commercial or military satcom as needs change. Consortium type arrangements, something like that could be helpful to keep those costs down. We keep looking for opportunities to take advantage of it, but often the price drives us away from the commercial groups except in urgent situations or making more strategic selections. Sometimes we have to come to industry on short notice, and then perhaps pay a higher price because of that.

      VIA SATELLITE: Do you believe High Throughput Satellites (HTS) will have a major impact on NATO’s satellite communications?
      I definitely think that high throughput satellites have great promise for NATO. It is definitely something we need to consider in our future architecture as an option.

      I ask myself, will it be available where I need it (with the required beam foot print)? And right now I can’t tell you, but perhaps we could share a few locations where, if we needed all of Africa or something like that, we could have some assurance that we could do that.

      VIA SATELLITE: Is NATO ready for High Throughput Satellites (HTS)?

      Edwards: When we talk about our scattered areas, we are gateway dependent, and as I understand it, using HTS, the gateways may not necessarily be reused, so then we have to change out the terrestrial infrastructure that we have been using for the last 40 to 50 years. The architecture would have to shift, but I would see that as something NATO is willing to do looking toward the future because of what we see as benefits for our rapid deployments, for our deployed forces, and also the decrease in cost.

      VIA SATELLITE: As NATO evolves, how do you see the agency’s satcom/telecom needs changing?
      The evolution of NATO is moving away from a defensive type of operation to readiness. Within that readiness, the agency has to conduct a lot more training operations than before. Moving forward, the deployed and a rapid response capability will drive a lot of our needs, particularly in the satcom area. Our special operations forces, our lead elements that have to deploy quickly; you have to have a very agile manner to connect them back to the fixed infrastructure, and then conduct planning for, and put more robust bandwidth capabilities into operations.

      You can see quite a number of our satellite ground stations spread throughout Europe. We’ll be reducing the number of those satellite ground stations from an efficiency perspective. There are a lot of resources that we put into maintenance and upkeep, so we would like to reduce the number of those and take advantage of technology to give us the same coverage that we need and the reach into our deployed operations.