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Defense Eyes Lower Risk High-Throughput Future

As the U.S. Department of Defense engages the commercial industry in an analysis of alternatives for the government’s WGS system, commercial and DOD players explore what might come next — from the rise of NewSpace and HTS innovators to new thinking around how capacity is procured, launched and managed.

Many in the industry believe that 2019 will be a critical decision-making point on the future of the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD) Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) constellation, with the final satellite, WGS 10, tentatively scheduled to launch some time in early FY19 (Nov. 2018 to Feb. 2019) pending launch vehicle availability, say Air Force officials. In between now and then, DOD is conducting an Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) to evaluate what future mix of government and commercial satellite systems the military will leverage in the future.

While DOD understandably has reservations about entrusting the commercial sector with too much of its protected communications needs, commercial players contend that they are well positioned to provide more innovative, cost-effective options for meeting secure communication links, rather than the DOD spending billions on building out and managing the next generation of satellites.

A Higher Standard of Resiliency

“The environment has changed for satellite communications and all space systems because space is becoming much more congested and contested than ever before,” says General John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command. “Potential adversaries have had a front row seat to our many successes and the advantages that integrating space into the fight brings, and are actively developing capabilities to negate that advantage, from low-end reversible jamming to high-end direct ascent and on-orbit kinetic antisatellite weapons.”

Earl White, former Air Force senior executive and intelligence advisor with U.S. Space Security and Defense, says it’s one thing to make a case for using commercial satcom for non-mission critical activities, but it’s another to rely on commercial satcom for core military operations when lives are at risk. “The government should, and likely will, hold satcom providers to a higher standard of resiliency with the increasing concerns over a contested space environment,” he says.

White adds that any satellite viewed as supporting the United States in a conflict might be considered a fair target and the likely form of attack would come from uplink and downlink jamming. The good news is advanced beamforming and signal-processing techniques offered by High-Throughput Satellites (HTS) can counter those attacks. “It’s increasingly important to understand jam resistance and cyber vulnerability, as many companies were slow to build cybersecurity into their systems. Fortunately for the government, price of bandwidth is dropping as the commercial world fields more capacity, and this gives room to pay more for protected services,” he adds.

A New Mindset

The U.S. government remains the single largest consumer of commercial satcom. The U.S. Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) says that during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the government was purchasing nearly 10 GHz of capacity from the commercial marketplace, while today the leased capacity stands at 6 GHz, which is only 40 percent of the total wideband satcom capacity DOD uses.

“We think [reliance on commercial satcom] is going to level off in the short run, but post- AoA, it is more likely going to increase,” says Eron Miller, chief of the Satcom Division in DISA’s Comsatcom Center in Network Services.

Pete Hoene, CEO at SES Government Solutions, sees a lot more engagement from U.S. government decision makers. “There is an awareness of what commercial technology can bring to the table,” he says, whether it be the way the government seeks to purchase satcom, to how it gets assets launched. Hoene points to the success of the U.S. Air Force Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP) that resulted in “85 percent of the Air Force’s mission objectives being achieved at 15 percent of the free-flyer satellite cost” after its launch in 2011.

“We are very fortunate to have some senior leaders in the DOD, in both the Air Force and other services, who want to change the way we do business,” says Hoene. “They are looking at different ways to approach the problem. Part of that is we now have a fiscal imperative to do things better and more affordably, and part of it is they just believe commercial is creating new and exciting capabilities that they have not seen before.”

First Government Demonstrations of HTS

Skot Butler, president of Intelsat General Corporation, says a big focus for his company’s government play is on the HTS market opportunity. Intelsat 29e, the first of seven Intelsat EpicNG high-throughput satellites, was brought into service in April. A second satellite will launch in August, with three to follow in 2017.

“You really have to be in orbit and operational before the government starts signing up. We have started to do the first government tests and demonstrations, and the response has been very, very positive in terms of the higher throughputs they’ve received on the user’s terminals,” says Butler, pointing out that Intelsat is using an open architecture allowing customers to use any terminal or modem.

“The government has spent significant money on Ku-band terminals worldwide. They don’t want to go out and buy new terminals. Even outside of satcom they are not particularly interested in being locked into proprietary systems,” notes Butler. “Ultimately, we are going to see some platforms move toward more of a multi-band approach. There is already a bunch of development underway for Ku- and Ka- airborne platforms and others are looking to do three different bands. The government will say in order to have maximum flexibility, they need to be able to work across different military and commercial bands.”

Butler points to two main drivers of government interest in HTS — first, the spotbeam architecture that supports higher data rates on smaller terminals — and second, managed services. “They’ve been talking for years about how they would like to eventually move over to a more managed services model where the provider is managing the network for them,” says Butler. “That is very conducive to HTS and to managed services. We expect to see a lot of growth for HTS and managed services from the government, but they will have to learn how to write their requirements a little differently in a spotbeam versus widebeam architecture.”

General Hyten says that while commercial satcom is integral in supporting national and combatant commander objectives, “current military space operations centers have little interaction with commercial satcom owner/operators who provide resources to the DOD.” He anticipates that the level of information sharing will increase in the future, even though commercial owner/operators supporting warfighters currently are not required to supply Space Situational Awareness (SSA) information to the DOD. “An anomalous condition could indicate a satellite failure, space weather event, or an attack by an adversary. Knowing and sharing this information in a timely manner would allow space operations centers like the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) to build a better operations picture of our assets in space and respond more readily to observed threats,” he says.

The Lure of Low Earth Orbit

The coming of HTS in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) represents additional capacity options for government users, though there are technical challenges to overcome. The lag time between transmissions is greatly reduced in LEO, but at the same time, the satellites are closer to Earth so they move a lot faster, requiring more satellites all flying in formation.

“Reducing the size and weight of the platform is going to be challenging in terms of integrating an HTS payload into a small-satellite platform,” notes Arun Kumar Sampathkumar, senior research analyst for Frost & Sullivan’s aerospace and defense sector, pointing out that there are operators aiming for a 120-kilogram range of weight.

An MQ- Reaper remotely piloted aircraft performs aerial maneuvers over Creech Air Force Base, Nevada.Photo by Senior Airman Christian Clausen.

Sampathkumar observes that while the per-satellite hardware cost will be lower, the total cost will still be significantly high as these types of constellations are looking at 65 to 80 satellites. “Overall, with small-satellite platforms, multi-satellite constellations can be realized at costs lower than what might cost a conventional monolith large satellite,” he says, though it is not a guarantee that smaller satellites mean lower costs. To illustrate, Sampathkumar notes that ViaSat is expected to spend about $1.37 billion over five years for three Ka-band satellites, which comes to about $0.45 billion per satellite, while OneWeb’s plans to deploy 720 LEO satellites will cost about $3.6 billion. Still, there are many believers that the pros outweigh the cons when it comes to LEO. He points out that the low cost of hardware is driving firms such as LeoSat, which plans to offer Ka-band LEO HTS service initially to big enterprises, to embrace small-satellite technologies.

Mark Rigolle, CEO of LeoSat Enterprises, says the company plans to launch two early bird HTS for system testing and validation in 2018 with the goal of launching a full constellation of 78 satellites in 2020. He adds that his firm is getting “significant interest” from both U.S. DOD and other ministries of defense even “without having started a focused effort to target the military sector in our initial marketing efforts.”

NewSpace as a Driver of Defense Capability

Companies such as LeoSat, SpaceX, OneWeb and O3b (now owned by SES) are among a wave of NewSpace companies helping shape the future of the commercial satellite industry and a path forward for a commercial-satcom hungry defense industry. Looking ahead, White sees NewSpace companies having a far-reaching impact, where they will compete head to head in traditional space markets, including national security space.

“NASA seems to recognize this [reality] and the Geospatial Intelligence Agency has published a commercial GEOINT strategy that seeks to leverage NewSpace developments. But it seems to me that the DOD space enterprise does not yet know how to react,” White observes. “The DOD is taking another look at hosted payloads, at disaggregation and the use of smaller buses, but this is really just leveraging innovations in traditional space. There are yet big institutional barriers between DOD and NewSpace.”

Even with the positive momentum both in the industry and within DOD leadership to work more closely together, there are still challenges, especially in the procurement arena. Hoene notes that the way DISA currently procures commercial satcom for DOD “could be significantly improved.”

“They could be more interactive with industry, they could buy the capacity in a different manner to be more effective and efficient [similar to what was demonstrated on Pathfinder initiatives], and I think at some point, a single acquisition manager concept that has been bounced around in Congress and other circles is probably needed to focus the energy of the Department in that area.”

Lessons of Pathfinder

In 2014, the Air Force, together with DISA, took on a multiphase pathfinder approach (“crawl-walk-run”) to explore new ways to affordably acquire commercial satcom.

“Instead of using operations and maintenance dollars or overseas contingency dollars to lease the capacity, the government bought capacity with actual procurement dollars, which was unheard of,” says Hoene. SES was awarded Pathfinder One in June 2014; this initial commercial satcom pathfinder, deployed over Africa, uses two Ku-band transponders on the Eutelsat 16C satellite and three Ku-band transponders on the NSS 7 satellite.

According to the U.S. Air Force Space Command, this pathfinder successfully demonstrated an affordable alternative approach over spot-market leases. “The DOD saved approximately 40 percent versus annual spot leasing with long-term deals,” says General Hyten.

In addition, the Space and Missile Systems Center recently submitted a request for information from potential sources for a second pathfinder. The purpose: to procure transponders prior to the launch of a commercial satellite.

“We expect this to lead to a mature strategy in five years that will merge these activities with existing programs into a coherent and holistic process, taking advantage of commercially-available products and services to the maximum extent practical,” General Hyten explains.

IDIQ Vehicle Consolidation

In the nearer term, Miller says DISA will continue down its current acquisition approach partnering with the General Services Administration (GSA) using the two Schedule 70 contracts, along with the Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) Multiple Award Schedule to lease comsatcom. Miller points to one key change: instead of two separate IDIQS, one for large and one for small businesses, there will now be a single contract. “This will give small businesses the opportunity to compete on all requirements, and there also will be small business set asides,” he says, encouraging the industry to take part in the Commercial Space INFOSEC Working Group that DISA co-chairs with NSA. “Our message is to continue to partner with the Department. We embrace partnering with the industry to leverage their innovations.”

O3b AVL Antennas SES GS has used for O3b live demonstrations out of SES GS' Washington Media Port in Bristow, Virginia.Photo: SES-GS.

Despite this posture of openness, plenty of industry players, however, including NewSpace firms in Silicon Valley, lament that the current acquisition process is neither streamlined nor agile enough to keep pace with the kind of innovation coming from commercial firms. This presents a challenge because it is these first-to-market disruptive technology and business models that government agencies ultimately must tap into to meet their mission requirements cost effectively. White says there are examples of a more streamlined acquisition approach, such as what the Missile Defense Organization and the National Reconnaissance Office, with its “Directive 7” streamlined acquisition regulation, have embraced.

The Pivot to the Pacific

One thing is clear: the U.S. military will continue to need to balance competing capacity demands globally with persistent threats and shrinking fiscal dollars. The long-touted pivot to the Pacific will likely create new frequency demands for providers of comsatcom.

Sampathkumar predicts that “the rate of migration to Ka would be a lot slower both in Africa and Asia Pacific simply because the governments have already invested in both commercial and proprietary C and Ku and because they had those capacities already to support their high-throughput needs.”

Evolving Priorities for Remotely Piloted, Unmanned Aircraft

Some of the early adopters of high-throughput satellites in the defense arena will be users requiring increasingly smaller terminals such as unmanned aerial vehicles, says Intelsat General’s Skot Butler. According to the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, the DOD has allocated approximately $4.5 billion for drones in the proposed Fiscal Year 2017 budget, which is lower than the previous fiscal period, although slightly higher than in Fiscal Year 2015.

“The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fueled an enormous investment in unmanned aerial systems, which produced large spending programs on tactical UAVs, such as the Army and Marine Corps’ AAI RQ-7 Shadow as well as larger, longer-endurance platforms such as the Air Force’s MQ-1 Predator and RQ-4 GlobalHawk,” notes Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center.

Gettinger says as those acquisition programs have run their course, research into new technologies is emerging as a priority. “There is a greater focus on investing R&D funds into advanced technologies such as what you see with the Office of Naval Research’s Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology (Locust) program.”

One platform that will continue to be funded is the MQ-9 Reaper. In Senate Armed Forces testimony earlier this year, Air Combat Command leadership reported that remotely piloted aircraft fly 60 combat lines daily.

“ Robust and assured communications is essential to remote aircraft and all of Air Combat Command’s missions,” says command spokeswoman First Lt. Carrie Volpe. A major focus now is developing extended flight time capability to support commander requirements. “We are also working on capabilities for the aircraft to carry a mix of multiple sensors and weapons that are used simultaneously,” she adds.

Volpe says a host of future technologies will drive the evolution of future remotely piloted aircraft. “Expanded bandwidth is critical, but we also need assurance of access to the satellites without interference,” she adds. “The ACC is looking to improve the connection reliability of satellites on different frequency bands and transition between satellite footprints to increase operational agility and access.” VS