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Private SATCOM's promise

Satellite providers find military demands tough to plan for

Jun. 17, 2014
 
Epic NG satellite
Epic NG satellite ()

At the peak of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the demand for high-definition full motion video was so intense that about 90 percent of the bandwidth used by U.S. Central Command was supplied by commercial satellites, said Robert Tipton Osterthaler, CEO of SES Government Solutions, one of the big four commercial satellite communications services providers.

“No one really predicted the explosion in demand in time to do much about it,” Osterthaler said, “but we were fortunate that there were a lot of assets and there was sufficient spare capacity to accommodate that explosion.”

Commercial satellites, including commercial X-band, were able to meet this challenge because there was spare capacity on satellites in the region during the peak fighting. That wouldn’t necessarily be the case in the Pacific.

“I would say the commercial capacity, especially by non-Chinese operators as an example, is pretty limited,” said Jim Chambers, vice president of engineering at XTAR, another SATCOM company. “And the satellites are fairly full, so if … there is a conflict that happens and there is a sudden surge requirement for commercial bandwidth, then I think you have to say that right now there might not be enough to meet a demand.”

Many of the commercials satellites in the region are delivering direct-to-home TV services over large urban areas, not potential flashpoints like the South China Sea, and have weak uplink capabilities, added Osterthaler. To meet future military contingencies, industry will need to plan ahead, and that means longer term commitments from the government beyond the one-year Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity contracts they’ve been getting until now, he said.

As for the still-deploying Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) constellation, he believes that DoD is engaging in “wishful thinking” regarding its capacity. Besides not being able to operate with MQ-1 Predators, MQ-Reapers and other platforms using the Ku band, the constellation is not the bright shiny penny it once was.

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“By the time we get the last WGS spacecraft up, we will be within a few years of life of the first WGS spacecraft because it’s taken so long to do it,” he said. “So our system capacity peak will only be in a few years’ time.”

Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, senior vice president of government policy and strategy at Inmarsat, finds Osterthaler‘s worries about the longevity of WGS to be “highly emotive.” Inmarsat, as a global provider, does not require a heads-up to support DoD, she said.

“When you start looking at the pivot to the Pacific, we’re already there,” she said. “And not just space segment coverage, but we have the requisite landing rights and country accesses, which is a real challenge in some portions of the world, to be able to support our users today.”

Still, she conceded that it is “a little difficult to predict” whether WGS and a few Inmarsat satellites would be enough to meet all possible military scenarios in the Pacific.

Committing to COMSATCOM

The National Defense Authorization Act passed in December calls on the DoD to look into multi-year procurements and hosted payloads for commercial SATCOM, or COMSATCOM. DISA has been doing this while preparing an advisory report for Strategic Command and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, taking inventory of global satellite missions and talking with industry leaders about how they might support those operations.

“We’re looking at a whole range of options, whether it be longer-term leases, whether it’s buying a whole transponder on satellite or putting some kind of payload on a commercial satellite,” said Martin Gross, program executive officer for communications at the Defense Information Systems Agency. The final decision will likely involve a combination of solutions, he said.

In February, the representatives of the major satellite service providers went to Scott Air Force Base, in Illinois, to meet with U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) officials. The companies wanted to learn more about the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) contracts used by USTRANSCOM to lease commercial airplanes to transport people and cargo during a capacity surge. The visitors were especially interested in the working capital fund supporting the CRAF program.

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“That means there has to be a pricing mechanism in there, which kind of creates a trade space where people can make sensible economic decisions about whether to use a C-17 or a chartered 747 to provide a capability,” Osterthaler said. “We think that something like that would be very sensible for satellite communications.”

Such a CRAF contract would make it easier for the satellite industry to plan for the longer term. XTAR, for example, has been considering the idea of developing a new X-band satellite for the Pacific region, Chambers said. But it would be easier for the company to reach a decision if it had a firm commitment from the government, he said.

As for hosted payloads, such as the Air Force’s Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload, the benefits for DoD are pretty straightforward: the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center doesn’t have to launch its own satellite to get a new sensor payload or transponder in space.

“It’s a guaranteed access,” said Robert Willett, DISA’s SATCOM gateway branch chief, adding that these hosted payloads help combatant commanders better formulate their plans. “If they know that they [are] assured access on a commercial platform, obviously they can start to engineer into how they are going to execute the plan, how they are going to deploy units, how they are going to establish their communications networks.”

Still, Gross is careful to emphasize that the issue is not commercial versus military. “It’s really a focus on what’s the right mix,” he said. ■

The coming of high-throughput satellites

The insatiable demand by military users for high-definition video, multi-spectral sensors and en route airborne communications is partly driving the development of high-throughput satellites, according to Chris Hudson, senior solutions architect engineer at Intelsat General. Employing narrow spot beams, these satellites deliver higher data rates than traditional ones because, Hudson noted,“each individual carrier can be done more efficiently, and there’s room for a lot more carriers than there are on existing satellites.”

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High-throughput satellites can also squeeze higher data rates from existing terminals. “So if you had a terminal today that has a capability of transmitting one megabit on a traditional satellite, on the new Intelsat EpicNG class satellites, chances are that a terminal with no modifications is now capable of transmitting 2 to 3 megabits,” Hudson said. This is especially good news for dismounted troops traveling with very small aperture terminals (VSATs) “because they will see the biggest gain.”

Intelsat, Intelsat General’s parent company, plans to launch the first of the satellites in 2015. This high throughput bird will operate in Ku band – which the MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawks have been and will continue to use for operations. Now, there are plans by the government to transition those unmanned systems to Ka, but that will take time and money. In the meantime, the Epic NG constellation can work with the legacy hardware, offering users “a huge jump in performance without having to make a huge investment,” Hudson said.

This is not necessarily the case with otherhigh-throughput satellites. For example, the Inmarsat-5 F1 satellite, built by Boeing and launched this December by Inmarsat, only operates in the Ka band. So the satellite cannot transmit video from medium- and high-altitude UAVs. That’s not an ideal position for Inmarsat to find itself, but the company did not have much choice.

“Most of the Ku band orbital slots in the world are already occupied or taken, and Ka band were available, so they got orbital slots in Ka band, and built their system around that,” Hudson said.

Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, senior vice president of government policy and strategy at Inmarsat, offers a different explanation. The reason why Inmarsat-5 F1 -- the first of four satellites in the company’s Global Xpress end-to-end constellation – operates on the Ka band is because Ku, while “fantastic for broadcast,” is not designed to support government mobile comms requirements globally. And Inmarsat wanted a capability in line with its core commercial business: maritime users.

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“We’re providing services to the most disadvantaged and most highly mobile users so that their capacity and capabilities are available anywhere in the world,” she said, adding that defense users will be able to leverage those Ka frequencies later on.

It will take a while for the military to transition to Ka given tight defense budgets, and some systems may not make the transition at all. But Cowen-Hirsch takes heart that it has already invested in ground terminals like the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical (WIN-T) and the Family of Advanced Beyond Line-of-Sight Terminals (FAB-T). In addition, there are platforms that can use Ka – for example, the Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System (EMARSS), the multi-intelligence aircraft being developed by Boeing.

In the meantime, Inmarsat has been boosting data rates on their L band satellites, allowing tactical drones to transmit some streaming video. “We’re prepared with our systems, both our L band systems and our Ka Global Xpress, to provide … [support to] mission-critical operations,” she said.

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