Military Not Taking Advantage Of New Commercial Satellites
Image: ViaSatThe commercial satellite industry, which the U.S. military relies heavily upon to communicate with its global forces, is launching systems that have throughputs that are orders of magnitude higher than any previous spacecraft.
The Pentagon and the armed services, however, are unprepared to take advantage of the advances, both in the technology and in its business practices, industry representatives say.
“The typical aircraft carrier right now — this is 5,000 people on a ship — can receive 20 megabytes [per second] for the whole ship. We’re doing 20 megabytes into the home for $99 per month,” Rick Lober, vice president and general manager of Hughes Network Systems’ defense division, told National Defense.
The $99-per-month price refers to the company’s HughesNet consumer internet service, which takes advantage of economies of scale in its pricing, but the cost is not the point. It’s the ability to send and receive large amounts of data. The military is woefully lagging in the infrastructure that can significantly boost the byte-per-second throughput, he said.
Hughes, and its commercial communications satellite competitors, are in a decade-long process of swapping out their old analog spacecraft and refreshing them with next-generation digital systems that not only have much larger throughputs, but features such as steerable beams that can cover different regions if needed.
Hughes has the Jupiter II, which it says is one of the highest throughput satellites orbiting the Earth today with a 220-gigabyte-per-second capacity. Jupiter III hasn’t been announced yet, but will be another leap in technology, he said.
Ken Peterman, general manager of government systems at ViaSat, said the company’s ViaSat II system will have three times the capacity of all the prior ViaSat spacecraft combined. Its upcoming ViaSat III will have a terabyte-per-second of capacity. In the last eight years, the company has gone through three generations of satellite technology.
“What you’re seeing is a remarkable technology trajectory from the commercial and private sector that is bringing wideband capacity faster than it has ever moved before,” he said at a panel discussion at the Satellite 2017 conference in Washington, D.C.
The so-called “digital divide” between the generations, which normally refers to the ability to take advantage of new computing technology, can also refer to bandwidth, Peterman suggested.
High school students today are used to ubiquitous broadband connectivity. Their life, their thought processes and their behaviors are connected to their devices. Then they join the military.
“For the first time, they are bandwidth constrained. And sometimes not connected,” he said. “We can put a virtual doctor in an airplane to deal with an emergency. They deserve the same broadband speeds. They deserve the same access to telemedicine,” he added.
Lober said he has heard of some instances where sailors did not re-enlist citing a lack of connectivity.
C-130s and C-17 cargo aircraft traveling outside the United States don’t have good connectivity to the internet, he noted.
“You can probably get better connectivity on commercial airlines right now than what you’re getting on some of these military planes,” Lober said.
Returning to the aircraft carrier, modern jet fighters such as the F-35 may need to download software upgrades as the ships are underway. Current speeds would take them all day to download, Lober noted.
Intelsat General is in the process of launching a series of seven of its Epic high-throughput satellites. Two have reached orbit. By 2018, it expects to have global coverage, according to company press releases. “The digital payload provides customers with unprecedented security and flexibility, enabling seamless access and the ability to shift capacity to match their usage needs in a particular region or timeframe,” it said.
Skot Butler, the company’s president, said at the conference that “every one of our Epic satellites that we launch has unique and additional capabilities and characteristics that the previous satellites [don’t have].”
Along with a lack of compatible technology, the way the Pentagon purchases capacity on commercial communications satellites will soon be antiquated, the executives said.
The industry has complained for more than a decade that the way the U.S. military buys satellite services from the private sector is inefficient and ultimately costs the taxpayers money. The Air Force and Navy operate broadband satellites, but they don’t have anywhere near the capacity needed, especially in times of conflict.
Even after operations in Iraq and Afghanistan declined, the demand for bandwidth remained insatiable, Lober said. As soon as the Air Force launches one of its Wideband Global SATCOM broadband enabled satellites, or the Navy one of its Mobile User Objective System satellites, they are at capacity.
“Our satellites are filling faster than we can get new ones up there, so why is the military any different?” Lober asked.
Longer-term leases of transponders, rather than buying capacity on the spot market as the military has, would result in better deals and allow industry to invest in technologies that the services need, they have argued.
However, the new architectures will soon render that a moot point, the executives said. The practice of buying capacity on a transponder on a spacecraft is ill-suited for these new spacecraft.
“The architectures of these high-throughput satellites are really going toward a managed service type [business] model,” Lober said.
Such plans are not unknown to the military. Contractors working on performance-based logistics plans for aircraft, for example, don’t bill the military for every task they complete, they guarantee a level of service and that the platforms will work a certain amount of time.
It’s not going to work in every case. There will be some battlefield applications where it won’t, but a lot of the military network could be run off a managed services model, just as it has for regular telephone services, he said.
“Consumers buy 10-gigabyte plans. You don’t go to the cell phone company and say, ‘I want to buy 30 megahertz of spectrum and set up my own system and manage it,’” Lober said.
Commercial customers are taking advantage of the new flexibility the current generation of satellites can offer, where data packages can be sent at a higher priority or lower priority. “We do that all the time,” he said. Steerable beams can move a transponder’s “footprint” — the area on Earth it covers — as needed.
Peterman said managed services require the users to relinquish some control. “That’s hard for them. So we’re in a transition period. But if you want those benefits, driving down the cost-per-byte, with more efficiencies and better economics and simple access to systems, all those sorts of things require that there is a trade that takes place between that control and achieving those benefits.”
Lober added: “The idea that the military is going to buy a beam that covers a third of the Earth and set up their ground stations and their terminals — it will still be there, but there will be less of that type of bandwidth available in 10 years.”
Another business model that will soon come to an end, one official admitted, is buying satellite capacity employing the Defense Department’s “lowest-price, technically acceptable” regime, which treated commercial satellite capacity as a commodity.
“Like pencils,” one of the executives quipped.
Peterman said lowest-price, technically acceptable was a terrible idea. “Bandwidth truly is not a commodity.” Vigorous competition among the providers already keeps cost down, he noted.
Eron Miller, chief of the services division at the Defense Information Systems Agency’s Comsatcom Center, one of the main buyers of commercial satellite capacity in the military, acknowledged that lowest-price, technically acceptable purchases were on their way out.
“LPTA served its purpose. But now with these newer, more capable satellites, it’s not just about buying a transponder and managing it ourselves,” he said at the conference.
“The technology has evolved to the point where we have to take another look at it.”
As for the new satellites, Miller said: “It’s hard for the department to easily adapt to the way it does business because if we fail, if the mission fails, the results can be catastrophic.”
Some communications applications won’t fit the new business models. DISA must figure out which ones will be appropriate.
“I believe that commercial does have that network reliability to support the DoD mission, but we have to convince the warfighter that when they need it, they don’t have to have control of the network — that they can trust the network and can join that
That wasn’t the case during last decade’s wars when DISA needed to get capacity to the services quickly.
The department needs to know if surge capacity will be there or not. If it’s not certain that it will be, it may make long-term investments in new technologies that can help it link to the high throughput spacecraft.
“Our challenge is to make sure we understand enough about our requirements to leverage those opportunities. Our buzzword is efficiency,” Miller said. Where capacity isn’t required long-term, short-term leases still make sense.
“We should stop buying it all the same. We want to make sure we are investing or buying to meet the right requirement at the right time in the right theater so we don’t have waste,” he said.
He acknowledged the military is lagging in technology that can take advantage of the efficiencies the commercial operators can provide.
“Once we buy it, we need better tools to apportion out the bandwidth to those who need it. Right now, we don’t do that,” Miller said.
DISA also needs the means to understand and analyze usage profiles daily, or hourly, so “we can right size our requirements and be more efficient.”
He told the executives: “We need your help to understand the full capacity of what your new technology brings to bear so we can apply it.”
The Air Force, another major purchaser of commercial satellite capacity, is kicking off an analysis of alternatives for its satellite broadband needs as it looks ahead to what a new architecture might be following the completion of the Wideband Global SATCOM fleet.
There are some who have advocated for the military to get out of running its own broadband satellite systems altogether, leaving it to commercial providers, so it can concentrate on military unique requirements such as highly protected EHF spacecraft, needed for high-intensity conflict and command and control in the event of nuclear war.
Lober said the Air Force has been good about asking for industry input and has even allocated a small amount of money for companies to do some studies.
“There is still a feeling that they want to buy the bandwidth themselves,” he said, although service officials are “starting to get the message” that the old way of doing business may come to an end.
“Simply knowing what our place is in that architecture — in that vision — will go a long way toward incentivizing commercial industry to take on some of those unique challenges,” Lober added.