Communication Architecture Not in Place for Shift to Asia-Pacific
But there are questions as to whether the military will have the satellite capacity needed to communicate effectively in this region.
"The new national security strategy foresees a lot of engagement in the Pacific. There had better be a good understanding of what communications infrastructure exists out there," said Robert "Tip" Osterthaler, president and CEO of SES Government Solutions.
SES is one of many commercial satellite operators from which the U.S. military purchases satellite communications capacity. The Defense Department was forced at the outset of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to go to the commercial marketplace and lease or purchase on the spot market time on private sector satellites. This was an expensive proposition for military customers, but necessary since the fleets of U.S. owned satellites could not take up the slack.
At the Satcon conference here Nov. 14, Air Force Space and Missile Command Commander Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski said this practice will continue even though operations in Central Asia are expected to wind down after 2014. She put forth some potential new business practices where using commercial satellites becomes more or less an integrated part of the military's communication infrastructure rather than a stopgap solution to the enterprise's shortcomings.
Kay Sears, president of Intelsat Corp., another commercial satellite services provider, said it is unlikely the military will be able to depend on the private sector to augment its communications needs in the region. The fact is that comsat companies go where the profits are. That means they build and launch satellites designed to serve large population centers. Such is the case in the Middle East.
"The Pacific is a very different region," she said. There are large bodies of water where satcom providers have no incentive to operate. She estimated that there is about one-fourth the satellite capacity in Asia-Pacific of what is found in the Middle East. If there was some kind of surge scenario, it is doubtful the military could call on the private sector.
If the communications infrastructure is not ready to support forces in the Asia-Pacific region, then it is a problem that someone is going to have to address, Osterthaler said.
The question remains, who is that someone?
Charles Beams, strategic adviser for space and intelligence at the office of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics (ATL), said there is currently no comprehensive framework showing how the military will provide communications to war fighters in an affordable way. Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has asked the Defense Business Board, an advisory council, to look at ways to streamline the processes of purchasing commercial satellite services.
Another bigger picture advisory board will be convened by ATL Undersecretary Frank Kendall to look at future communication infrastructure requirements and how to bring together all the players in the Defense Department, he said.
One reason why the military currently has no roadmap or overarching vision for the future of its military communications architecture is that no stakeholder has a "51 percent vote" on what should be done, the experts at the conference said. The office of the secretary of defense, the chief information officer, the Defense Information Systems Agency all have parts to play, but none of them are in charge. The Air Force owns and operates its fleets of communications satellites, as does the Navy.
Beames said the military has been in an "ad hoc mode" for a long time when it comes to providing satellite services.
Photo Credit: Air Force