The U.S. military will likely take a hybrid approach to meet its satellite communications needs in the future, relying on bandwidth from commercial services and government-owned systems. But the mechanics of how the Pentagon will get there isn’t exactly clear.
According to a Government Accountability Office report released Dec. 19, an analysis of alternatives for wideband satellite communications conducted by the Department of Defense more than two years ago determined the military should depend on a mix of government-owned and commercial satellites for satellite communications. What the report lacked, however, were recommendations on how to get there.
The analysis instead determined the department needed more information to make any recommendations, although the GAO warned the Pentagon does not have a formal plan to gather that information. As a result, Congress’ watchdog agency recommended the Secretary of Defense ensure military leaders develop such a plan.
Pentagon officials estimate that they spend about $4 billion for wideband satellite communications annually. These services are used for voice, video and data communications throughout the world. The primary system for those communications is the Air Force’s Wideband Global SATCOM, a constellation of 10 satellites in geostationary orbit, but military leaders expect the satellites’ capabilities will begin to degrade in the 2020s. While an additional WGS satellite could extend those capabilities into 2031, that purchase only delays the Air Force’s inevitable decision to buy a new satellite communication system or to rely more on commercial service providers. In order to maintain SATCOM capabilities in the 2030s, the government would need to begin launching new satellites in the late 2020s.
The Pentagon conducted the analysis of alternatives to provide recommendations for that decision. While the report was completed June 2018 and identified 11 alternatives for SATCOM acquisitions, it has not been made public.
However, the report from the GAO said the Pentagon’s findings focused on three broad sets of alternatives: purpose-built systems supplemented by commercial services; commercial-focused SATCOM procurement, and an approach that would transition from purpose-built system to a more commercial-oriented model.
Specifically, the GAO report said that the military concluded a hybrid architecture of purpose-built government-owned satellites and commercial services would be more cost effective and capable than settling for one approach or the other. Specifically, the study found that commercial providers did not have enough X-band coverage to meet government needs, requiring purpose-built systems.
At the same time, purpose-built systems cannot fill all of the government’s SATCOM needs, meaning the military will need to supplement its purpose-built systems with commercially provided services.
The GAO said complicating factors remain. This includes the instability of commercial technology and the huge costs associated with replacing or modifying user terminals to take advantage of a new SATCOM architecture.
Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.