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Modernization and Budget Challenges: Forcing International Militaries to Rethink Bandwidth

By | May 1, 2013

      The needs and operational requirements of the world’s largest military organizations and businesses are not all that different. As the demand for satellite capacity steadily increases in both sectors, the satellite communications systems used by both military and enterprise end users must rapidly evolve to run in Ka-band and other high-throughput frequencies to operate over the latest satellite networks.

      It is this very challenge that narrows the separation of roles between systems such as Hughes’ Jupiter satellite launched this past July, and the stream of new Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) satellites being launched into orbit for the Pentagon.

      Both enterprise and military also share technological challenges. Some claim that the C- and Ku-band spectrum markets have faced saturation issues for the past few years. Whether or not that’s true, the surge in the number of businesses and defense organizations relying on satellite technology has significantly increased data traffic from devices such as smartphones and mobile tablets that run on bandwidth-intensive applications which traditional terrestrial networks cannot handle simultaneously. Military organizations are just as keen on using satellite for mission critical communications as businesses are in using satellite for critical remote applications such as videoconferencing. But, what makes the military unique is its need to maintain this high-powered connectivity in regions of conflict where ground networks are constantly at risk by physical attacks, and space segment and IT networks are constantly under attacks in the cyber realm.

      That said, military organizations around the world are forced to ask themselves the same questions that IT departments in the private sector have been forced to answer: is Ka-band the logical step forward for operations? If so, can we modernize while cutting costs?

      These questions drove Bentley Walker to form a partnership with Hughes Network Systems’ European business unit this past fall. The partners hope their military customers can find solutions to these issues in the Ka-band communications service they launched for the Middle East last fall over U.K. operator Avanti’s Hylas 2 satellite.

      Bentley Walker CEO Anthony Walker understands that the U.S. military is facing a tough enough challenge in scaling back its presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, while at the same time, engaged in a fierce budget battle that could last for many years.

      Budget Cuts

      “The Pentagon’s budget cuts will focus mostly on large weapons systems and troop levels, but they are also looking for ways to save money on critical communications, including those carried over satellites,” says Walker. “Our agreement with Hughes Europe allows us to augment our existing Ku-band broadband morale, welfare and recreation (MWR) services to U.S. military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan. This will enable us to offer higher speed packages, allowing soldiers to benefit from consistent broadband delivery at the speeds they choose.”

      Walker explains that the Ka-band offering was structured to meet modernization needs while providing a reduction in costs. As part of the partnership agreement, Bentley Walker purchased three additional Gateway NOCs from Hughes, which includes two HX System 4.0s to enable resellers to set up local Virtual Network Operators (VNOs). This infrastructure allows existing users of the service to benefit from an easy upgrade path to the new Ka-band service, which offers higher throughput speeds at lower cost using a smaller dish.

      “It is very true in many ways that the military market has the same needs as the enterprise market and the mobility markets combined,” says Walker. “These needs focus on increasing throughput with high assurance of connectivity for fixed and mobile service. You cannot stress the reliability aspect enough when the lives of soldiers so often depend on reliable, secure communications.”

      The physics of Ka-band allows greater volumes of traffic to be transmitted over the bandwidth compared to C-band and Ku-band, though this does not always translate to an increase in performance due to several uncontrollable factors, such as rain fade. However, demand for Ka-band satellite capacity is expected to grow over the next decade, especially across the Middle East, South Asia and Africa for applications including trunking and cellular backhaul services, broadband access, and network management.

      Keeping those regions in mind, it only makes sense that Middle East regional satellite firm Yahsat developed its dedicated government satellite service, YahSecure. The company recently tested U.S. Department of Defense-compatible Ka-band terminals over the steerable beam provided by its Yahsat 1A satellite. The testing, which took place between Yahsat’s headquarters in Abu Dhabi, UAE and another undisclosed location was conducted on ARSTRAT-certified Swiftlink 2.0 VSAT terminals bundled with iDirect Evolution modems operated by TeleCommunication Systems (TCS) and provided by Boeing Commercial Satellite Services (BCSS). A number of test applications were successfully implemented, including Voice-over-IP, data and full-motion video running concurrently over a secure and encrypted satellite network.

      YahSecure General Manager Rashed Al Ghafri emphasizes the significance of the trials and their successful outcome, which he hopes will convey assurance that Yahsat’s space and ground infrastructure can successfully accommodate and deliver highly secure transponders and gateway-supported military Ka-band frequencies over U.S. DoD-compatible terminals.

      “The success of these tests is a momentous accomplishment, which show YahSecure can provide significant benefits to military operations across the region,” says Al Ghafri. “The tests were comprehensive and the successful results are testament to the capabilities of Yahsat 1A’s state-of-the-art design and to its ability to adjust to changing mission requirements. It was also a milestone for our overall business, as it positions us as the only commercial satellite provider to have operationally proven its ability to deliver military Ka-band services to government entities in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.”

      YahSecure Testing

      In 2011, American aerospace manufacturer Boeing Satellite Systems International formed its Boeing Commercial Satellite Services unit, which was charged with assisting commercial operators with entering into service agreements with the military. Boeing Satellite Systems International President Steve O’Neill was directly involved in the YahSecure testing. He notes that decision makers in the military satcom world must respond to growing global demand from expeditionary forces that require mobile connectivity, and increasing dependence on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms as it transforms its own satellite communication systems.

      “It is no secret that military users, both in a theater of operations and training at home to prepare for deployment, will continue to demand more satellite capability and capacity for mobile and high-bandwidth applications,” says O’Neill, who adds that the significance of the YahSecure demonstration is that existing terminals can be used with a variety of systems, which further widens the window of opportunity for commercial operators to support the military. “YahSecure offers a commercially available military Ka-band platform in a region of short supply and with few trusted options. The trial demonstrated a solid technological grasp in providing satellite terminals, training and global support services to the U.S. government that can work seamlessly in the global marketplace.”

      European space technology manufacturer Astrium built the YahSecure system for Yahsat. Its Astrium Services business unit has been developing and delivering solutions and services to the French Ministry of Defense since 2005, providing a range of satellite telecommunication services under the ASTEL convention framework agreement with DIRISI – the joint directorate of infrastructure networks and information systems responsible for the management of military satellite communication services in the region. Astrium has also been providing communication services for French military personnel deployed on overseas missions, enabling servicemen and women to keep in touch with their families and friends through an Internet portal called “Escale des Armées” – previously known as “Passerel.” In 2008, Astrium Services was selected to develop the Telcomarsat naval satellite communication system for the French defense procurement agency (DGA).


      This past February, however, the DGA awarded Astrium Services and its military telecommunications specialist partner Actia Sodielec with the Comcept contract – a 17-year deal that will provide the French armed forces with access to additional broadband satellite capacity over and above that provided by the existing Syracuse system, along with a Ka-band ground segment for secure ultra-fast broadband satellite communications.

      “Having built the Yahsat system for the armed forces of the United Arab Emirates and the Ka-Sat satellite for the operator Eutelsat, we have a lot of experience in new satellite networks operating in Ka-band,” says Astrium Services CTO Eric Soulères, who calls Ka-band the frequency range of the future. “Thanks to Comcept, the French armed forces will join their American and UAE counterparts in a very select group of armed forces who have military Ka-band networks. The program will mainly use capacity on the French-Italian satellite Athena-Fidus and will also be compatible with future commercial satellite networks operating in Ka-band, which will provide global coverage.”

      Athena-Fidus is scheduled for launch within the next 12 months. Astrium Services is the prime contractor for Comcept in France and will also be responsible for the engineering and testing of the system, as well as ensuring the system remains operational and secure.

      The French military will reap several technological benefits from the network of fixed and deployable ground stations outlined in the Comcept deal. The ground stations, specifically, are deployable both in France and in theaters of operation, allowing them to exchange data, videos and telephone communications using next-generation full-IP technology. The contract also provides for the option of equipping vehicles, ships, planes and drones with built-in mobile stations.

      Soulères says Comcept will become the first military network of its type in Europe, and will make use of the latest IP network solutions on the market, while also optimizing costs.

      “We are excited to be working in partnership with a medium-sized company in our co-contractor Actia Sodielec, who is also a specialist in supplying satellite telecommunications to the French Ministry of Defense. Their unique perspective will really show in the engineering, integration and operational maintenance of the ground stations,” says Soulères. “To bring the Comcept project to fruition, we will also draw on our unique Ka-band expertise that we gained with the Yahsat system and work with some of the world’s most modern armed forces.”

      Growing Interest

      Back in the United States, the interest in exploiting Ka-band for military and government satcom applications is spreading thanks to regionally exclusive, multibillion-dollar space systems, such as the Pentagon’s X- and Ka-band Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) satellite program constellation. The WGS-powered interest moves well beyond the coffers of major U.S. manufacturers Boeing and Lockheed Martin and is integrated with the commercial industry on several levels: from large-scale constellation investments from MSS operators Iridium (Next) and Inmarsat (Global Xpress) to Ka-band service providers like ViaSat and Hughes, and down to the ground technology manufacturers such as Norsat, Cobham and C-Com. Even Gilat subsidiary Wavestream is now prepping to begin work under an exclusive contract with Honeywell to supply Ka-band transceivers for integration into airborne antenna systems that will provide in-flight connectivity to the Inmarsat Global Xpress network.

      O’Neill asserts that the U.S. government already sees Ka-band as the most appropriate, affordable solution to meet their future satcoms-on-the-move, just as international governments have already announced strategies to acquired commercial solutions that complement decisions to transition to the spot-beam bandwidth.

      “The Ka-band frequency is unique in the sense that the commercial and military bands are adjacent to each other, which provides military users with a unique advantage,” says O’Neill. “It gives them the opportunity to go to commercial services to complement Milsatcom capacity. Also, the simplified terminal designs that have emerged and can operate flexibly across a variety of commercial and military resources have made technology development more affordable in some cases. Developing a multi-band terminal using both Ku-band for commercial and Ka-band for military users, however, can be both complex and expensive. A clearer, more consistent advantage can be found in the scale of the technology. Higher frequency Ka-band antennas, on average, are a quarter the size of their Ku-band equivalents, which makes transporting to and operating in mobile environments quicker, easier and most importantly, safer.”

      Overall, the government sector shift to Ka-band satellite broadband has brought much attention and focus to the U.S. Department of Defense’s ever-changing views on modernizing to Ka-band-compatible space and ground assets at lower costs. It would, however, be wise to look outside of domestic borders and notice the rapid technological development and acceptance of new Ka-band systems in the international community. In many cases, international military organizations have outpaced the Pentagon, which is stuck watching the slow evolution of its infrastructure and trying to make up its mind on whether or not it can afford the commercial systems that were designed to complement and provide critical capabilities for its networks.