Headlines illustrate a shifting role for COMSATCOM in the military

Every now and again, we come to a crossroads in our lives where we’re forced to sit down, take a look in the mirror and reflect deeply on our past, present and future. These introspective moments are rare, but they can be revealing – showing us things that we’ve been doing incorrectly, identifying paths that should be taken and highlighting areas of improvement.

If these moments are rare for people, they’re probably rarer for large institutions and organizations. However, the Department of Defense (DoD) recently found itself pausing and taking a deep look within, and analyzing its own approach to satellite requirements and infrastructure.

How did the DoD get to this point? Much of it had to do with timing. The military found itself rapidly approaching the end of the WGS satellite initiative, and the end-of-life of some of the satellites launched early in the life of that program – some of which launched more than a decade ago.

Simultaneously, the military saw massive advancements in the satellite industry – many of which we’ve discussed extensively on the Government Satellite Report. New satellite technologies, including the rise of high throughput satellites (HTS) and satellite constellations in new orbits – including LEO and MEO, created new possibilities for the military. These low latency, high bandwidth satellites could offer fiber-like bandwidth to practically anywhere on the planet, and they could do so today – if only the military had access to them.

At a crossroads – having to decide what to do in the wake of the WGS program and wanting to rapidly leverage the advanced technologies entering the marketplace – the DoD did some series introspective soul searching in regards to its satellite infrastructure. The result? A desire to rely less on purpose-built satellites – launched, owned and operated by the military – and a shift towards working more closely with industry partners to fill satellite communications requirements.

This shift was reflected in the wideband Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) conducted by the Air Force. And it’s also been reflected in some of the recent reporting making its way into the space and satellite trades. Here are a few examples:

AoA validates expanding commercial role in MILSATCOM architecture

The Government Satellite Report recently dispatched Warren Ferster – former Editor-in-Chief of Space News – to the MilSatCom USA conference organized by SMi Group of London. What Warren heard at that annual conference was very much in line with what we were discussing above:

The U.S. Department of Defense should continue to use a mix of military- and commercially owned satellites to serve its wideband communications needs, even as it requires increasingly higher levels of protection against jamming and other threats that have emerged in recent years.

Chief among the reasons for this decision to embrace an increasing amount of COMSATCOM services was a requirement to better protect satellites. A hybrid architecture that combines MILSATCOM and COMSATCOM with the ability to switch rapidly between them would best position the military to overcome attempts to deny satellite communications through jamming and other means.

However, there’s also the desire to more rapidly take advantage of satellite innovations, which can be utilized sooner and more effectively by partnering with commercial providers – many of which have already built and launched these advanced satellites already.

However, just because the desire to increase the use of COMSATCOM services is becoming increasingly pervasive in the government, that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges…

To predict the future of military satellite communications, ‘Follow the terminals’

The recently-released SATCOM AoA may have determined that it would be advantageous for the military to more broadly and rapidly embrace its commercial partners, but that doesn’t mean they’re quite ready to do so yet. The satellites, themselves, are really only one part in this equation. There are also the terminals and terrestrial networks that are required to make the whole thing work.

Unfortunately for the military, that side of the equation could be seriously lacking. According to this article in Space News, the military is bullish about embracing commercial SATCOM, but the technology of their terminals lags behind the advanced technologies in commercial satellites. That means the two – quite simply – can’t talk to each other.

That’s a problem, and a problem that won’t be resolved quickly. As Space News notes, “Because of the cost and the complexity of upgrading military equipment, it could take decades to update or replace all 17,000 wideband SATCOM terminals currently in the Defense Department’s inventory.”

Regardless, it’s only a matter of time before this gets ironed out. In fact, the government desire to partner with the satellite industry is even creating global alliances with both parties working in partnership to solve some complex problems. Including this one…

ESA prioritizes cybersecurity with SES–led consortium
A we discussed above, one of the largest drivers for the military looking to increase its use of COMSATCOM services is security and mission assurance in space. Simply, put, space is a contested domain now and no military satellite is completely safe. Between jamming, potential space collisions and even kinetic attacks, protecting satellites is more essential than ever.

Now, the European Space Agency (ESA) and COMSATCOM provider, SES, are working together to make satellite transmissions even more secure.

In this excellent piece in Via Satellite, they look at the recently announced QUARTZ program, which centers around the encryption of satellite signals. The program is being led by a consortium that is a true public-private partnership of government organizations and private companies.

If there’s any evidence of the new relationships being formed between governments and commercial SATCOM providers, it’s coalitions like this that see them working hand-in-hand to solve some of the government’s largest satellite challenges.

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