Solving the Government Equation: Tighter Budgets + Greater Needs = New Solutions

Government and industry are learning how to collaborate more effectively in order to overcome budget challenges and still meet warfighter bandwidth needs.

The United States

In 2013, the United States Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) fund climbed to more than $90 billion. The Department of Defense (DOD) Fiscal Year 2016 budget request called for $50.8 billion. The status of OCO funding — a resource the U.S. government has used for a significant amount of commercial satellite communications (comsatcom) purchases in recent years — is indicative of a trend toward lower government spending that industry has struggled to adapt to in recent years. But at the same time, and in the midst of sequestration, government spending on comsatcom in the U.S. and around the world has grown. Instability around the world and government’s growing role in non-combative support, such as responding to natural disasters or disease outbreaks like Ebola, have made satellite an ever more pressing need.

“According to [the Defense Information Systems Agency] DISA, which tracks our comsatcom spending, the DOD has steadily increased commercial satcom consumption each year,” says Deanna Ryals, project manager for international milsatcom at the United States Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC). “Today we spend nearly $1 billion per year on this capability, and this increase is mainly due to our increased global operations.”

The DOD has concluded through its satcom roadmaps that it will face an increasing demand for required capabilities in all bands, meaning it will need an affordable solution to meet a demand that only continues to swell. Ryals expects industry will play an integral role in meeting those rising long-term requirements.

“SMC is committed to finding new and affordable ways to meet these demands, and we are working closely with industry through things like our broad area announcements and technology demonstrations to identify new cost effective ways to procure satcom capabilities,” she says.

A Phoenix tactical satellite terminal.

Kay Sears, president of Intelsat General, notes there have been gains in government working more fruitfully with industry. Operator talks, the resurrection of the mission assurance-working group, and the annual DOD satcom workshop are facilitating an improved dialogue.

“As part of the National Space Policy, [DOD] is very much encouraged to look not only at commercial partners for ways we can work together, but they were encouraging work with the international community as well. That trend has taken hold,” she says.

With DOD aware that comsatcom plays and will continue to play a consistent role, Sears questions why it is not focused on in the base budget. More desirable than even multi-year leases, she says an architecture that acknowledges the importance of commercial operators is the industry’s greatest need. Currently, DOD focuses on discreet systems, such as the Wideband Global System (WGS), the Advanced EHF program, and the Mobile User Objective System (MUOS), rather than a systems approach.

Sears says the Air Force Space Command is coming up with new architectures that show greater promise, such as the wideband protective service, which is defined by how a service can be spread across government and commercial assets rather than specific satellites. As DOD plans for disaggregation and improvements in resiliency and redundancy, a systems approach could graft commercial satcom into its architecture, enabling the industry to have a better sense of its role for the U.S. government.

“The reason we want an architecture as a commercial community is because we want to change the way that the DOD buys commercial satcom, and we want to make sure we understand what our role is in the future of providing satcom services to the military,” says Sears. “We don’t know what that role is today; all we know is that they come to us when they need it, and they are hoping that it’s available when they ask. Hope is not a strategy.”

SMC and the milsatcom directorate are working to find new ways to meet satcom needs for warfighters through the direction and guidance of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (AT&L) buying guidelines for better purchasing power. Ryals highlighted finding ways to achieve affordable program control and lifecycle costs, incentivizing industry productivity and creativity as some of the agency’s big goals, as well as promoting effective competition. Going forward, she says partnering with allied nations on milsatcom capabilities has been very effective, and that she expects collaborations similar to what has been done with WGS and AEHF to continue especially during this fiscally challenging environment.

Military users trial Inmarsat's Global Xpress service.Photo: Inmarsat

The International Arena

Worldwide, public sector spending on satcom has been challenged as well, but today there are more players looking to satellite than ever before.

“Whilst overall in 2014 the global government market shrunk, we actually grew last year and expect strong growth going forward,” says Andy Start, president of global government at Inmarsat.

The number of nations looking to Inmarsat for government satellite capabilities has reached nearly 100. Start says that, regardless of individual economic circumstances, massive financial pressure is a common theme around the world. A large part of this is an increase in concern from constituents on how their tax dollars are being spent. Furthermore, asymmetry between nations continues to widen, and issues that slip off of the public’s radar, such as piracy, continue to persist.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO’s) Communications and Information Agency is also seeing an increase in the use of remote military communications and satcom. The organization, comprised of 28 nations, relies heavily on comsatcom as well as support from member states. The need for rapid deployments contributes in large part to the agency’s comsatcom needs, though Director for Infrastructure Services Gregory Edwards acknowledges the need to stay connected with often limited foresight does contribute to paying higher costs.

“A rapid deployment is a key driver for NATO’s commercial military satcom requirements, and what is driving the capacity is that we are moving toward more centralization in NATO. The functional applications are now pushed forward,” he says. “[But] in satellite communications, cost is really the moderator for us as to which direction we go and how much we use. It depends upon finding efficiency and balance.”

Edwards says NATO’s requirements have grown and are growing. As the agency centralizes its communications, it plans to reduce the number of satellite ground stations it operates to rein in costs associated with maintenance and upkeep. NATO is also looking to more effectively balance resources from member nations and commercial operators to make costs more acceptable. Edwards notes the agency is eager to seek out new cost-sharing partnerships that would allow it to find lower costs while meeting its growing demand for satcom.

Redefining Sovereign Capability

An interesting trend Inmarsat has noticed is the primary role that commercial satcom is playing in the sovereign capabilities of some nation-states. While advanced nations like the United States may seek to build and operate many of their own satellites, others are looking at new says to define payloads on commercial spacecraft.

“One thing that is changing is the sense that some nations which are very keen to have sovereign capability, don’t necessarily want to own the capability,” says Start. “So there are some very interesting examples out there of private financed services that are not owned by the government but still deliver sovereign levels of protection.”

The U.K. government’s Skynet program is one such example, where the satellites are under governmental control, but the whole service is outsourced. Start notes that smaller nations in particular tend to lean more heavily on commercial resources, but with national security features built in. They also don’t want to leverage just one satellite, but instead prefer a blend of networks.

“They are outsourcing what is effectively milsatcom, but through a commercial arrangement,” says Start. “What gives you the sovereignty is having the links secured using cryptography that you trust and having people that you trust operate the system.”

Solving the New Cost Equation

Even if funding levels grew, the pressure to make every dollar count would not dissipate. The United States and other nations have been learning how to “do more without more,” and that lesson, in good times or bad, is here to stay. Interestingly, both the U.S. government and the international community are learning how to fold commercial satcom into national priorities in ways that were never done before. With these changes afoot, the government sector is poised to look to the commercial sector as a vital part of its communications infrastructure for the long haul. 

High Throughput Satellites: The Unknown Variable?

High Throughput Satellite (HTS) systems show great promise in many sectors, including government. Several of the world’s top operators, including Intelsat, Inmarsat and O3b Networks are investing considerable amounts in new HTS constellations. But government customers may be impeding their own ability to use these advanced systems, according to Bill Ostrove, aerospace and defense analyst at Forecast International.

“The real effect will have to wait for the DOD to come up with a future architecture,” Ostrove says. “The commercial sector has been much faster in developing new satellite technologies than the DOD. Competition, faster CAPEX cycles, and consumer demand for bandwidth are driving changes in the commercial market. That said, HTS will have a place in military space applications. Just as consumers and businesses are using more bandwidth, militaries are also. HTS will enable increased data usage without having to launch more satellites.”

Edwards sees HTS as having great promise for NATO, though the agency has not yet included them in any architecture. Still, he describes the potential of HTS to reduce costs as very attractive, particularly for Comms-on-the-Move (COTM) and Beyond Line of Sight communications (BLOS). But tapping into HTS may also require a significant ground infrastructure overhaul.

“When we talk about our scattered areas, we are gateway dependent, and as I understand it, using HTS, the gateways may not necessarily be reused, so then we have to change out the terrestrial infrastructure that we have been using for the last 40 to 50 years. The architecture would have to shift, but I would see that as something NATO is willing to do looking toward the future because of what we see [as benefits for our] rapid deployments, for our deployed forces and also the decrease in cost,” he says.

Ryals, from the U.S. Air Force, notes the progress made by HTS, but says the current focus at the milsatcom directorate is elsewhere.

“We see that high throughput satellites are making steady gains but, in our opinion, the most powerful improvements are going to come through enhancing our ground systems, such as gateways networks and terminals,” she says. VS

Caleb Henry is Via Satellite's junior editor.

previousOneWeb's Red Flags Were Easy to IgnorenextA Sobering Look at the Future Role of HTS Systems for 5G