Air Force developing holistic approach to meeting defense-wide satcom needs

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U.S. Air Force space officials are developing an overarching military satellite communications strategy that takes into account both government and commercial capabilities, and expect to have it ready for release before the end of the year.

The plan also will address potential demonstrations, or pathfinders, that the Air Force has used in the past to prove out new procurement and utilization concepts for commercial satellite capacity, said Air Force Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) in Los Angeles and program executive officer for space. Traditionally, the Department of Defense (DoD) has procured commercial bandwidth under relatively short-term contracts, often on the spot market, which industry officials have long argued is inefficient and makes it difficult to plan for future military needs.

The strategy initiative follows the congressionally mandated transfer of responsibility for procuring commercial satellite capacity for military users from the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) to the Air Force. That transfer, which formally took effect in December 2018, responds to longstanding concerns about a lack of coordination between DISA and the Air Force, which buys and operates its own communications satellites.

In an April 9 keynote address at the 35th annual Space Symposium, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said the transfer will enable the service to take a holistic approach to the military satellite communications enterprise. “That [transfer] will be a tremendous help, as there is very clear synergy between commercial communications satellite capabilities and those of the Defense Department,” she said.

Thompson, in an April 11 media briefing along with other Air Force space procurement leaders at the Symposium, said the strategy now in development breaks down the stovepipes that have long existed between commercial and government-owned systems.

“We are working very closely with commercial satellite providers and our traditional military satellite communication providers to make that strategy happen,” Thompson said. “I would expect a formal rollout of that strategy later this year.”

The strategy review also follows the Air Force’s long anticipated Analysis of Alternatives for wideband satellite communications, which was completed last summer. According to Air Force officials, that study concluded that the DoD will continue to rely on a mix of government and commercial assets for wideband services, which comprise the biggest chunk of the military’s satellite communications requirements.

Commercial satellite operators have long pushed for a larger piece of the overall DoD market pie, and have been deploying new capacity in different orbits to match those ambitions. Satellite operator SES, for example, on April 4 completed deployment of its first-generation O3b MEO broadband constellation with the launch of four new spacecraft aboard a Soyuz rocket operated by Europe’s Arianespace consortium.

Now consisting 20 satellites in medium Earth orbit (MEO) covering 70 percent of the world’s population, O3b provides fiber-like services with minimal latency, or lag, between signal transmission and reception, compared to geostationary orbiting satellites.  Reston, Va.-based SES Space and Defense, which provides SES satellite capacity to the U.S. government, last June signed a blanket purchase agreement with DoD for up to $516.7 million worth of high-throughput services from O3b through April 2023.

“O3b’s low-latency, high-throughput services support time-critical enterprise applications that are becoming integral to modern military operations,” said Peter Hoene, president and chief executive of SES-Government Services. “This capability is unique in the marketplace, providing a strong complement to our geostationary satellite services.”

SES will begin deploying its second-generation MEO constellation, dubbed O3b mPOWER, in 2021-2022. Those seven satellites, under construction by Boeing, will dramatically increase the capacity, flexibility and coverage of the O3b constellation, allowing for higher throughput at fiber-like latency SES also operates more than 50 satellites in higher geostationary orbit, and counts the government as a major customer for services from those spacecraft.

Thompson said the next series of pathfinder experiments are still being debated but that there is a lot of interest in terminals that are interoperable with multiple satellite systems, both military and commercial. “Right now within the Department of Defense, the numbers I’ve heard is between 130 to 160 different kinds of unique satellite communications terminals,” he said. “I think that’s an area where having a multi-capable terminal and reducing the number of different configurations is something that industry is very excited about.”

A number of companies have such equipment in development and testing.  Antenna maker ThinKom Solutions of Hawthorne, Calif., for example, is testing a phased-array antenna that the company says can switch seamlessly between individual satellite beams and from constellation-to-constellation, including MEO and geostationary systems. Some of the testing has been carried out on the O3b constellation in cooperation with SES, ThinKom has said.

Thompson said the Air Force is looking at how to take advantage of where the commercial market appears headed. As an example, he cited satellite systems with a large number of individual “soda straw-sized” beams – as opposed to beams covering much larger areas – as beneficial because transmissions over these systems are more difficult for potential adversaries to detect or disrupt.

The planned O3b mPOWER satellites dramatically increase the number of spot beams available, according to SES Space and Defense. The current O3b satellites feature 10 individual beams apiece, whereas the Future O3b mPOWER satellites will each have more than 4,000 beams, a 400% increase according to company literature.

The Air Force is reviewing a number of pathfinder proposals as part of the overarching strategy review, Thompson said.

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