Government Space Leaders Look To Commercial Satellites for More Resilient Communications

On Tuesday, December 15, the Washington Space Business Roundtable hosted a luncheon and panel discussion entitled, “DoD’s Pivot to Commercial SATCOM.” This panel brought together senior military decision makers with industry experts to discuss a major trend in SATCOM – a move away from government-owned and operated satellites to an environment where the federal government and military leases more bandwidth from the commercial satellite industry.

The members of this star-studded panel included:

  • Warren Ferster: Editor-in-Chief of Space News (moderator)
  • Winston Beauchamp: Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space, and the Director, Principal DoD Space Advisor Staff
  • Peter F. Hoene: President & CEO, SES Space and Defense
  • Rick Lober: VP and GM of the Defense & Intelligence Systems Division at Hughes Network Systems
  • Kay Sears: President, Intelsat General
  • Leonor Tomero: Professional Staff Member, House Committee on Armed Services
  • Joe Vanderpoorten: Space & Missile Systems Center Pathfinder Program Office

Together, these satellite experts explored the difficult situation that the Air Force and the rest of the United States military is facing; namely, the rapidly approaching end of the Wideband Global SATCOM system (WGS) fleet program.

The WGS satellite constellation is comprised of ten disparate spacecraft that were scheduled for launch over the course of a decade. The final WGS satellite – WGS-10 – is slated to launch in FY18. The WGS system is a replacement for the aging Defense Satellite Communications System (DCSC), which had limited capacity compared to WGS and commercial satellites.

At a time of budget uncertainty and cost-cutting within the federal government, the exorbitant price tag on each of the WGS satellites seems unsustainable in both the near and distant future. This has the military looking at less expensive alternatives for satellite communications requirements following the launch of WGS-10. One of the alternatives being discussed across the space segment is the deliberate integration of commercial satellite communications (COMSATCOM) services into the National Security Space architecture.

The reasons to look to COMSATCOM as a key national security enabler were presented by Leonor Tomero, who identified, “new threats, fiscal constraints, [and a] need for resilience,” as drivers for this renewed interest in COMSATCOM services. Ultimately, Ms. Tomero noted that, “Relying more on commercial capability…may be more advantageous for the tax payer…

Can COMSATCOM answer the call for satellite bandwidth following WGS-10? According to Pete Hoene of SES Space and Defense, “I think the answer to that is, “Yes,” and we are encouraged by…how the industry brings innovative solutions to the table.”

Despite assurances from the COMSTCOM industry that they can handle the bandwidth demands from the military, there are some concerns from the government about using COMSATCOM in this capacity. Many of these concerns circle around the Extremely High Frequency (EHF) wavelength, which has been utilized exclusively in the government satellites due to a lack of business cases to embrace it within the COMSATCOM industry.

Panelists at the WSBR luncheon discuss the move away from government-owned and operated satellites to an environment where the federal government and military leases bandwidth from the commercial satellite industry.
Panelists at the WSBR luncheon discuss the move away from government-owned and operated satellites to an environment where the federal government and military leases bandwidth from the commercial satellite industry.

This sentiment was echoed by Winston Beauchamp when he stated that the Department of Defense, “Historically [has] not seen a business case for commercial bandwidth in the EHF band.” Despite the DoD being, “committed to close partnerships and collaborations in the industry as we plan our next generation satellite architecture,” Mr. Beauchamp reiterated that, “While DoD is looking for services available commercially, that band is not commercially available.”

Discussion around the EHF and security of satellite communications is at a fever pitch thanks in large part to something that we heard extensively at this year’s SATCON Conference in New York, NY – space is an increasingly contested environment. Our adversaries know the military’s reliance on SATCOM for information sharing, intelligence gathering and remotely piloted aircraft operations, and have made significant strides towards intercepting, jamming, disabling and destruction of satellites and satellite communications.

The lack of EHF capacity on existing COMSATCOM spacecraft doesn’t mean that industry can’t support the military when it comes to providing secure communications.

First, there’s the opportunity to launch EHF payloads as hosted payloads aboard COMSATCOM satellites. In this situation, the military would place their mission-critical EHF payloads on commercial satellites that are slated to be launched in space. The COMSATCOM provider and military would then share the cost of launch and satellite operation, effectively slashing the total cost of launching the payload.

Mr. Beauchamp validated the potential to launch EHF payloads and systems as hosted payloads when he said, “Certainly for protected tactical systems you would want to see options that include hosted payloads.

But launching EHF systems as hosted payloads is just one way that COMSATCOM services can help protect military satellites and communications. As Mr. Beauchamp explained, “I wouldn’t say that just because COMSATCOM systems don’t have the protections that MILSATCOM has that they are in any way less contributing to a resiliency. In fact, the diversity of these systems in itself contribute to resiliency.

This increase in resiliency is an end result of deception and distribution. Distributing military communications through COMSATCOM satellites makes it extremely difficult to pinpoint exactly which satellite is carrying mission-critical communications for the U.S. military, making it harder for our adversaries to target a particular spacecraft. Mr. Beauchamp illustrated this point when he explained how COMSATCOM, “provide[s a] very complex environment to adversaries [and]… make[s] it as difficult as possible for them to really understand what it would take to hold our capabilities at risk.”

But deception is just one resiliency benefit of COMSATCOM. The distribution of military communications across multiple satellites – including COMSATCOM satellites – ensures that there is no one single point of failure, and that the compromise of one satellite doesn’t impact communications as a whole.

Despite the promise of secure military communications across COMSATCOM, and the ability to drastically reduce the cost of satellite bandwidth and capabilities across the military, there are still questions about how best to acquire and pay for satellite services. To gauge the effectiveness of different COMSATCOM services and their cost benefits, the Air Force launched a series of programs called, “Pathfinders.” These Pathfinder programs utilize acquisition dollars to purchase transponders that are then turned over to COMSATCOM providers to operate and service for a multiyear period.

When discussing the first Pathfinder program, panelist Peter Hoene of SES Space and Defense said, “[Pathfinder One] is a really key initiative and…broke a lot new ground. The idea of the government buying…a transponder and allowing the COMSATCOM owner/operator to operate that for their needs is really a breakthrough.

The benefits of the Pathfinder program were extolled by Joe Vanderpoorten of the Air Force Space & Missile Systems Center, who claimed that the Pathfinder One program has been successful in delivering bandwidth to the customer, while also being, “successful economically.

With the WGS program coming to a quick and abrupt end, the DoD and Congress need to identify how they’re going to bring new satellite capabilities on line following the launch of WGS-10. The panel discussion showed that COMSATCOM can provide the new technologies, increased flexibility and cost savings that are essential to the military today. By continuing to aggregate COMSATCOM purchasing under the authority of a single entity, finding new and innovative ways to purchase COMSATCOM services and working to integrate COMSATCOM services into a single network with military satellite capabilities, the DoD can be sure that they have a secure, resilient satellite network capable of delivering information when and where needed, in all situations and theaters.

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