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No New Military Communication Satellite Systems until 2025
By Stew Magnuson


Advanced-Extremely High Frequency Satellite

Despite plans to acquire thousands of new terminals, and aspirations to create a more expeditionary network architecture, the Army will have to make due with the military communications satellites on hand until at least 2025, an Army analyst said March 20.

Edward Aymar, senior milsatcom systems analyst for the Army chief information officer's space and airborne branch, said the service wants to get to the point where it does not have to create a network every time it arrives in a new area of operations. That would require satellite communications because building up fiber-optics takes time.

The problem is that there are not enough satellites to go around. "We know we don't have enough capacity," Aymar said at the Satellite 2013 conference in Washington, D.C.

The Air Force and Navy are currently launching a series of three new communications spacecraft: the Advanced-Extremely High Frequency, the Wideband Global Satcom and Mobile User Objective System satellites. All three had been in development since the 1990s. These, along with 1980s-era milsatcom systems, are not enough to fill the services' demands for bandwidth. The Defense Department must go out and lease time from commercial satellite companies.

The Army plans to field some 4,000 new WIN-T terminals, which will give the service a greater capacity to do communications on the move. However, most of the current milsatcom fleets are designed to service fixed architectures, Aymar noted.

Meanwhile, Bruce Bennett, program executive officer for communications at the Defense Information Systems Agency, confirmed that the number of Wideband Global Satcom satellites is currently capped at 10. The cap is purely for fiscal reasons, he said, and it is not set in stone. There could be an 11th authorized in the future. However, it is important to remember that the technology needs to be refreshed at some point and the military can't continue to build the same communications satellites over and over.

The fifth WGS satellite is scheduled to be prepared for launch later this year, and the sixth is in storage. The Boeing Co. is under contract to build the remaining four spacecraft.

Commercial communication satellite providers continue to say that they can provide whatever the military needs — up to a point. Hughes Network Systems, for example, is offering on-the-move satellite services. But executives at the conference repeated what they have been saying for the past year. They build satellites to serve the commercial market. The military constitutes only 10 percent of their business. They will not be able to support a strategic shift to the Asia-Pacific region except in a few highly populated areas.

“Industry is willing and able to do this,” said Tip Osterthaler, president and CEO of SES government solutions, a comsat provider. Companies such as his spend about $1 billion per year to recapitalize their fleets. It is a matter of persuading the government to commit to buying services in remote, underserved areas where it is likely to operate.

“We are going to deploy the capital, the question is, what do we use it for?” he said. There is a lot of demand for direct television services in Asia, Africa and other highly populated areas and emerging markets. The companies can quantify that, and invest accordingly. They don’t know what the Defense Department is going to need.

Sonny Marshall, president and CEO of Marshall Communication, a systems integration and engineering firm, predicted the 10 terabytes of data the military transmits over satcom every month will grow to be 10 terabytes per day. There are sensors being developed for overhead surveillance that will have 10-square mile views, he noted.

“The budget is down, but our appetite for bandwidth is increasing,” he said.

Photo Credit: Air Force, Boeing, Navy

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