No Big, New Military Communication Satellite Programs in the Future

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
NEW YORK CITY — "We are not in an environment where I can afford to start large programs," the commander of the Air Force's Space and Missiles Center said Nov. 14 in a keynote speech during the Satcon conference here.
Budgetary pressures will put an end to large, expensive military satellite programs for the time being, Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski said. The Air Force is currently looking out 10 to 15 years in an attempt to foresee its needs. The service is now in the process of launching a series of two, new powerful milsatcom systems, the Advanced Extremely High-Frequency and the Wideband Global Satcom satellites. They are typical of the large, expensive satellite programs of the past, she said.
When she first entered the space procurement world in 2005, the only concerns on the minds of her superiors were capability and schedule. As long as the spacecraft performed as advertised and they were launched on time, everyone was happy, she said.
Today, the first word coming out of her superiors' lips is "affordability."  
There are several paths ahead, she said. The lowest risk one is simply to continue to buy WGS and AEHF satellites. The problem is that they were designed in a different era when the United States had few peer competitors in the ultimate high ground -- space. The realm has become congested and contested, she noted, with about 60 nations operating satellites and 11 countries capable of launching spacecraft.
That makes them vulnerable to attack. The buzzword at the center is now "disaggregation," where capabilities are spread out among smaller or shared platforms. The disaggregated architecture concept calls for small spacecraft carrying protected communications payloads. These spacecraft are hardened against nuclear attack, jamming and interception of messages, and are used for strategic, rather than tactical, communications. The AEHF is the current generation of protected satellites.
The next generation of protected communication satellites may be integrated aboard a commercially available bus, she said. The bus is the power and propulsion systems and the satellite's outer shell. They may also be integrated onto a commercial satellite system. These so-called hosted payloads are the new trend, and Pawlikowsi has set up an office at the center's headquarters in Los Angeles to look for opportunities to have Air Force payloads hitch a ride on other spacecraft.
Protected communication satellites are power hogs, though, and may not be a perfect fit for hosted payloads, she added. That is why a smaller dedicated spacecraft may be the preferred method. They may not be as "exquisite" as the large, satellites but they would be more affordable, she said. The AEHF, for example, takes seven years to build, and its development process suffered from cost overruns and schedule delays.
While delivering the bad news for large satellite builders, Pawlikowski had some good news for commercial satellite providers, who made up a good portion of the audience at the conference. The military will be purchasing their services for the foreseeable future, she said. At the outset of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Defense Department found itself short of milsatcom capacity. It went to the spot market and purchased time on commercial satellites to address the surge. This was expensive, but no one cared at the time. Unmanned aerial vehicles, for example, were bandwidth hogs, and the military needed to establish communication links between the aircraft and home bases in the United States.
"It met the needs that we had," she said. Even though the surge is over, and the war in Afghanistan is expected to wind down, the military will still need to buy capacity on private sector satellites. One reason is the flexibility they provide. If the military needs to change its area of operations quickly, commercial systems can take up the slack.
"We are going to be riding commercial satcom for a long time," she predicted. The Defense Information Systems Agency, which purchases capacity on the spacecraft, has done a better job of signing contracts that are more favorable to the military.
However, Defense Department leaders will need to sort out how they perceive this reliance on the commercial bandwidth providers
"There is a fundamental decision that I think the department needs to look at: Do we continue to view commercial satcom as a surge capability -- this flexibility -- or do we look at it as a baseline system like we have for our military satellites?"
If they were part of the baseline, then the Air Force could consider actually investing in a commercial satellite with its acquisition dollars in exchange for using part of the spacecraft's capacity. There is a model for this, she noted. The Australian military paid the entire purchase price for one of the WGS satellites. In exchange, it can use one-sixth of the WGS fleet capacity.
Photo Credit: iStockphoto

Topics: Cyber, Procurement, Space

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