Satellite Shortages May Choke Off Military Drone Expansion

By Sandra I. Erwin

It is a perennial problem in military operations that there is never enough satellite capacity to satisfy commanders’ gargantuan appetite for voice and data communications.

The bandwidth crunch is expected to worsen in coming years as the Pentagon increases deployments of remotely piloted aircraft for around-the-clock surveillance in many parts of the world. Anticipated requirements for satellite communications will far outstrip capacity, officials have predicted.

The Pentagon has its own fleet of satellites, which supply about 60 percent of the military demand. It augments capacity by leasing commercial bandwidth, but that supply will become tighter in the future as vendors pursue more lucrative business in the private sector.

Analysts had predicted several years ago that military satcom needs would diminish after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended. But those projections were wrong, said William N. Ostrove, aerospace systems analyst at Forecast International Inc. Bandwidth demand will soar as the military deploys more drones in 24/7 surveillance operations, he said. Satellites offer an ideal form of communications links for unmanned aircraft because they provide global coverage. “It has been clear for a long time that the Defense Department is going to have to be creative to fill its bandwidth needs.”

The Navy, more so than the other branches, is likely to feel the satcom pinch as it carries out ambitious plans to create mobile networks at sea, and deploys large numbers of unmanned aircraft on ships and on land bases, as well as underwater robots for deep-sea surveillance.

Many people talk about the need to collect, process and distribute information, “But they do not talk about the bandwidth,” said Vice Adm. Kendall L. Card, deputy chief of naval operations for information dominance and director of naval intelligence.

Across the military and intelligence agencies, more surveillance drones are being deployed, and contractors are offering faster data-processing boxes to help manage the flow of streaming video. But the technology has limited use once it hits the bandwidth bottleneck, Card said at a conference of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

“I hear from companies that they can provide something at 2 gigabits per second. … I tell them, ‘That’s wonderful, but can you reduce it to 24 kilobits because that is all I can push through the systems,’” Card said. “Full motion video takes a tremendous amount of bandwidth,” he said. “We have to design systems with the missions in mind so we can optimize the bandwidth.”

When budgets for military satellites and for commercial satcom services start coming down, the problem will worsen, said Card. The Defense Department might eventually have to tighten the rationing of bandwidth, he said. “I hope we don’t get to the point where we have a joint person assigned in every theater to distribute bandwidth,” he said. “The way we’re going, we’ll be there.”

A Pentagon advisory panel, the Defense Business Board, warned in a January report that the Pentagon should start securing additional satellite capacity to meet growing demands. “Future strategy includes expanded presence into varied geographies. … New platforms and sensors require increasing satellite communications.”

The military’s plans to “rebalance toward Asia-Pacific,” the panel said, will require greater Navy support to patrol the sea lanes, which will drain existing satcom resources.

The Defense Department spends about $1.5 billion a year on satellite communications, which is split roughly 60/40 between military-owned satellites and commercial services. The commercial satcom share is expected to increase over the next decade to 68 percent. Only a handful of military satellites will be built between now and 2025 because of rising costs and shrinking budgets.

A potentially troubling trend for the Pentagon is the commercial sector’s explosive growth, which would drive up prices and reduce available capacity for the government, said the Defense Business Board. “Commercial satcom industry is multinational and some may not partner with the Defense Department in all geographies,” the group concluded. “DoD is not driving the growth of the industry — satellite TV, HDTV is.”

The satellite industry has mixed attitudes about doing business with the Defense Department, said Marco Caceres, aerospace analyst at the Teal Group. It is profitable for some companies to lease capacity to the Pentagon, but for leading players such as Intelsat, the military is not an ideal customer, he said. “They have plenty of lucrative business elsewhere,” Caceres said. “Unless the Pentagon becomes easier to work with, it’s not worth it for many commercial companies.” The issues are predictability and efficiency, he said. Companies would like long-term deals that provide incentives to improve technology and lower costs.

The Defense Business Board suggested that new contracting procedures are needed for the Pentagon to tap commercial satcom technology more efficiently. The Defense Department’s use of annual procurements offers little incentive for industry investments, the panel said. To benefit from the latest innovations in the satcom industry, the Pentagon should seek nontraditional procurements of services, such as the use of hosted payloads.

Hosted payload is an industry term for piggybacking government hardware on commercial satellites. A military-owned sensor or communications receiver, for instance, would operate independently of the main spacecraft but would share the satellite’s power supply.

This arrangement saves the government a lot of money, said Ostrove.

Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, told reporters last month that he foresees greater use of hosted payloads. But Ostrove pointed out that the Defense Department has had difficulties taking advantage of these nontraditional technologies, he said. “There is no mechanism in place for the government to do programs like hosted payloads.” There is plenty of available technology, but the Pentagon continues to struggle with the legal issues, such as integration of sensitive U.S. payloads on a foreign-made satellite, or how to protect these systems from hostile attacks. Further, the government has not figured out how to write these contracts, or how to negotiate prices for the services, Ostrove said.

Space firms are optimistic about the hosted payload market, despite the regulatory and policy challenges. “There are several ways to accommodate military frequencies and capacity commercially,” Jim Simpson, vice president of business development at Boeing Space & Intelligence Systems told National Defense in a written statement. Boeing has partnered with commercial satcom provider Intelsat to supply military ultra high frequencies (UHF) to the Australian Defense Force as a hosted payload. Another UHF payload would have been hosted for the U.S. government but was lost as a result of the Feb. 1 Intelsat-27 launch failure, Simpson said.

“The Australians have indicated saving more than 40 percent over a dedicated system for the life of the program,” he said. Boeing has built a military Ka-band and commercial Ka-band payload for Inmarsat that has been offered to the United States and allied countries. “In both the case of the UHF and military Ka-band capacity, the frequencies are compatible with the current terminals and ground infrastructure to reduce any additional costs,” Simpson said.

Multiple approaches to providing military frequencies are available in the private sector, he said. “At this time, the licensing of the military frequencies in the United States is a difficult process that is not necessarily aligned with the commercial build cycles,” Simpson added. “This has driven the commercial satellite service providers to look at U.S. allies to license the frequencies.”

Worries about the shortage of satellite capacity caused by overuse or by enemy jamming prompted the Defense Department to study alternatives, such as an aerial network. In the absence of satellites, the military would deploy unmanned aircraft, each of which would host a communications relay device and converters that translate signals.

Card said the results of the study were “unsatisfying” because each branch of the military would organize its network differently, and that could cause disruption in service. The Navy would need coverage 24/7, but other services’ unmanned aircraft might not be able to support that, he said. “It’s a real problem we need to work through. How do we get an aerial layer network over the strike groups in the Pacific Ocean?”

Industry sources said an aerial network would be hugely expensive, not only to build but to operate around the clock.

Card echoed the concerns that other defense officials have voiced in recent months about the military’s inadequate communications infrastructure in the Pacific region, where the Pentagon wants to increase presence. Not only is there insufficient satellite coverage, officials said, but there is also a danger of having enemies jam Global Positioning System spacecraft.

“We want to operate in anybody’s backyard,” said Card.

Photo Credit: Thinsktock

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Space

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