Collaboration and partnership key to commercial satellite in the military

Commercial companies – from technology solution providers to commercial satellite operators – have been advising the government and the military to embrace their solutions for decades. And with very good reason.

The government tends to move slower than the pace of innovation in these industries. After the government or military’s requirements are established, a bespoke-built solution often takes longer than a commercial build.
With the rapid improvement in technology, if a military program or satellite takes many years from design to going operational, it’s highly likely the capability will be outdated by the time the service starts.

In the meantime, private industry has continued innovating and have released newer products and solutions with better functionality and new capability that could be better at doing the job.

Rapid access to new and innovative technology is a big driver for today’s warfighters.  Military users are growing up with instant access to new technology and expect access to the improvements that new technology brings.  Aside from price, this is one of the best-selling features of commercial technologies, products and services – commercial technologies mean faster access to innovation. But this isn’t a completely one-sided argument.

There are very real reasons why the government and military are often reticent to embrace commercial solutions. Commercial companies don’t always listen to government requirements. And, in my opinion, when they do, they often try to force government entities into reshaping their requirements to meet already existing commercial solutions. Security and robustness needed by the military are usually features that most commercial systems don’t implement fully to the levels that are required.

What’s the alternative? Commercial companies need to do a better job of communicating with the government, identifying their unique requirements and then crafting solutions that meet these requirements, instead of trying to get the requirements to meet the solution. The government/industrial relationship has become too commoditized, too transactional – we miss the truly collaborative interaction that results in the ideal mix of function, schedule and cost, focused on the mission at hand.

And for those that think that this collaborative approach is improbable or far-fetched, I can offer an incredible case study from the satellite industry.

GovSat-1 and building solutions for government

The network-centric nature of today’s military effectively requires that all military operations have access to high bandwidth, low latency connectivity. Network-enabled military platforms, connected vehicles and warfighter capabilities demand it.

The military relies on a mix of highly protected satellites, assured and controlled WGS core capacity with UHF mobile and tactical satcoms for its main capability. This is supported by commercial capacities on a “use until you lose” basis.

In my opinion, WGS satellites are all similarly-built satellites that were designed two decades ago. They were built and then launched in succession from 2007 until 2019 – the tenth WGS satellite in the constellation was launched in March of this year.

Since these satellites were all built on an older design, they lack the advanced capabilities and technologies that are present in today’s more advanced commercial satellites. That’s because, much like I discussed previously, as they were being built, the industry continued to innovate and introduce new technologies and capabilities into spacecraft.

With just ten WGS satellites on orbit, some of which are headed towards end of life, the military often finds itself in need of more capacity than is available. This is exasperated by the older technologies in these satellites, which don’t have the same high-throughput as today’s advanced HTS spacecraft. This forces some missions and organizations to go without satellite service if something more pressing or mission-critical needs the capacity.

To help fill the military’s satellite requirements, many commercial satellite providers have called on them to utilize commercial satellite services – which is an excellent idea. Unfortunately, there will always be some data and communications that the military is hesitant to transmit via commercial satellites – which are often shared with other commercial and government users.

The typical commercial response is to tell the government to change its requirements. If commercial satellite services won’t meet their reliability or security requirements, they should just change them. But that’s a tall “ask” for most in the military, which often would rather make do with what it has than compromise on its mission requirements. Ultimately, this results in the military not getting the right capacity to meet its needs and leaves the commercial satellite industry complaining about it. But there is another path forward, as illustrated by LuxGovSat, a joint venture and stand-alone entity between the Luxembourg Government and SES.

In January of 2018, the Luxembourg Government and SES launched GovSat-1. This satellite is an incredible example of listening to military requirements and creating a solution that meets them, instead of trying to change the requirements.

GovSat-1 is effectively a military and government satellite built using a rapid commercial approach whilst maintaining the robust requirements of a military satellite. It provides both the X and mil-Ka frequency bands specifically dedicated to governments, and features many of the advanced capabilities and technologies that are found in today’s more advanced satellites. This allows the military to get the best of both worlds – they get the reliability and security of military satellite communications from a satellite that delivers the best, most innovative technologies from the commercial industry. It even allows the military to utilize the same terminals and antennas as the WGS constellation, meaning there’s no need to invest in new ground infrastructure.

The government and military should be looking at commercial technologies, products and solutions for meeting their needs. It’s the only way in which to keep pace with innovation and ensure that cutting edge technologies are being utilized to accomplish the mission. But for this to be possible, commercial providers need to be more sensitive and open to government needs and stop trying to force the government to change its requirements to meet their solutions.

GovSat-1 is an example of what can be done when governments and commercial providers work together to accomplish a goal – creating a solution that is tailored to government requirements and doesn’t force them to choose between having a capability and making difficult sacrifices.

In my next post on the Government Satellite Report, I’ll take a deep dive into the difference between military and commercial satellites and talk about the pros and cons of both for government users. For additional information on GovSat-1, click HERE.

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