Appetite for bandwidth squeezes military and commercial satellite capability

Central to the concept of network-centric warfare and the digitized battlespace is the ability to communicate vast amounts of data to an increasingly large number of people without worrying about availability of service or bandwidth.

May 1st, 2003

By J.R. Wilson

WASHINGTON — Central to the concept of network-centric warfare and the digitized battlespace is the ability to communicate vast amounts of data to an increasingly large number of people without worrying about availability of service or bandwidth. That demand is moving faster than existing military communications satellite systems can handle — and will exceed even the capacity of their replacements, scheduled to go into orbit through the end of this decade.

However, the commercial satellite communications world has not been without its own problems, especially as rapidly evolving technologies have sometimes eclipsed the ability to get a new system into orbit and establish its market on the ground — a problem further complicated in recent years by economic woes and corporate collapses, especially in the high technology arena.

"We use commercial satellite services, but part of the difficulty as we look to the future is all of the commercial programs in space have not made it lately," says Rear Adm. Rand Fisher, director of the Department of Defense Joint Transformational Communications Office (TCO). Fisher also serves as director of the National Reconnaissance Office Communications Directorate and as commander of the Navy's Space & Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) Space Field Activity.

"There was promise for Iridium and other ventures that haven't materialized. But the missions do and will require some reliance on commercial satellites, so we will continue to take advantage of those where they arise. That is for overflow, but also in areas where, if we have a specific crisis in a given area, then local needs tend to go up that we might not have enough capacity to handle with the existing military network. We need help in both access and capacity, so we will continue to use commercial assets where it will make sense."

But assured availability, encryption, security, and other requirements that often are specific to the military mean the bulk of defense communications investments will continue to revolve around dedicated military satellites, albeit a new generation that is far more capable than the aging systems they are set to replace.

"The Department of Defense is committed to transformation, a transformation that requires us to adopt — and adapt to — information-age technologies," says John Stenbit, assistant secretary of defense for command, control, communications and intelligence and DOD chief information officer. "The success of our efforts at transformation is related directly to our ability to bring information to bear in our warfighting and other national-security missions, as well as in the business processes through which we support operations and acquire military capabilities."

Frank Prautzsch, business development director for Raytheon Integrated Communications Systems in Marleboro, Mass., calls military use of commercial communications satellites the necessary "third layer" of a coordinated and cooperative communications structure necessary to meet all of the Pentagon's requirements, especially in periods of increased demand.

"No matter how you package a military operation, you will never have adequate capacity projection and mobility to meet all requirements," he says. "So a large portion of it blends back into a services package utilizing such commercial carriers as Intelsat or PanAmSat or Telstar."

Intelsat operates a fleet of more than 25 geosynchronous C- and Ku-band satellites, with access to a global network of more than 18,000 earth stations. The last in the Intelsat IX satellite series — Intelsat 907 — was launched in February 2003, with two Intelsat X series satellites to be launched later in the year. PanAmSat operates 22 geosynchronous C and Ku-band satellites; the latest, Galaxy IIIC, launched in June 2002. Telstar (including the previously named Loral Orion satellites) is part of the Loral Skynet network of 15 C- and Ku-band geosynchronous satellites.

"You will always have a need to rely on Ku, C-bands, and Inmarsat [International Maritime Satellite Organisation] narrowband-type services to support key requirements in coalition warfare," Prautzsch says. "If I have an operation with a partner who doesn't have access to Milstar or X-band or Ka-band, then I have to find a mechanism to work with them, which limits you to Ku or C.

"There's nothing exclusively unique [to the military] except waveforms and some advanced technologies I can't talk about here," Prautzsch continues. "There are ways to do things, such as security features and network protocols, that allow you work in those domains, but most are variations of commercial developments. There are still military standards that have to be met, but those basically all derive themselves from best practices in industry now."

One area in which commercial systems hold a solid lead on military satellites is the movement toward IP (Internet protocol) over satellite, which military leaders see as one way to make the most of limited bandwidth. Using commercial satellites for IP services would be the fastest and least-expensive approach, but it also would entail serious drawbacks.

"The military has developed all its equipment and systems at a very high expense [in the past] and now the trend is to go to COTS [commercial off the shelf], so with commercial satcom systems available at lower cost, it becomes an advantage. One disadvantage is not having preferential treatment," says Phil Berry, director of mobile satcom systems at ViaSat Inc. in Carlsbad, Calif. "In the commercial world, you are a customer without a priority key. That has always been a concern — can the military get service when they need it. And are those communications secure or could an enemy interfere with that service in time of war?"

Rick VanderMeulen, ViaSat's director for wideband systems, calls it a "balance and awareness" issue: "It will never be perfect because the military does have legitimate concerns that a 100-percent commercial system might not meet. If you tried to fight a war with cell phones, the first thing the enemy does is destroy the towers.

"Some of the key faults of commercial service are who is running it, is it reliable, can it be depended on everywhere in the world? We think the military will use a lot of commercial technologies, but deploy systems where key parts of the infrastructure are uniquely theirs, so they can depend on it being survivable and available when and where they need it. So going forward, it will be a case of more commercial technologies being implemented for military service."

While military leaders say they would prefer a dedicated satellite communications system across the board, military bandwidth is limited and so they must augment this capability with commercial systems to meet demand surges and to ensure constant global coverage for all users. As a result, there will always be a mix of dedicated military and leased line commercial satellites in the Pentagon's communications plans, predicts Tim Malac, director of aerospace systems business development for the Harris Government Communications Systems Division in Melbourne, Fla.

"There is much more capacity in the commercial satellites, but when the military needs capacity right now, if the civilian satellite can't give it, they're in trouble," Malac says. "Availability of capacity is a major issue. It doesn't matter too much in peacetime, but when there is a surge of requirements during a military action, it does. Commercial satellites also are more vulnerable; it wouldn't take much to take them out.

"So they will use commercial assets for excess capacity, but it is up to the government to determine what the actual mix will be," Malac continues. "They can't afford a 100-percent military system. Part of the transformational communications architecture (TCA) study, being led by the Air Force and NRO [U.S. National Reconnaissance Office], is to look at that mix — how much protected, how much narrowband, how much wideband, what capacity is needed, what can be provided by commercial assets — all of that has to be looked at."

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