Commercial SATCOM is Needed to Hit Army’s Moving Bandwidth Target

Lt. Gen. David Mann, chief of the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Command, laid out a simple and direct challenge in a recent interview with Army Times.

“We need to come up with new capacity that has a ten-fold increase in terms of providing the bandwidth support to the warfighter,” he said.

Mann added that the solution is the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) constellation, which numbers seven satellites, launched from 2007-2015. That constellation will increase to 10 with scheduled launches over the next four years. But even the full constellation cannot begin to meet the anticipated demand.

For example, this editorial from Defense One points out that a single Global Hawk UAS can demand as much as 20 percent of a WGS satellite’s capacity. And the DoD currently operates over 40 Global Hawks.

Unfortunately, Mann seems to be taking a “go it alone” perspective and ignoring how working with commercial providers could produce more bandwidth much faster for his escalating needs. For example, the DoD will be considering the way forward for next-generation wideband communications in its analysis of alternatives (AOA). This AOA could look more to commercial operators to meet most, if not all, its future wideband satellite demand.

Trying to go it alone will be far more difficult. Take for example the inevitability of government launch delays. History tells us that any number of concerns tend to push back launches, but the need for wideband capability readiness doesn’t match a satellite launch schedule. The need grows inexorably, while government launches are scarce.

Mann added later in the interview that “it is fair to say that there is not a lot of appetite for very expensive programs of record. We all know the financial constraints that we are in.” In that, Mann acknowledged the military’s push and pull for resources during austere times.

This has long been the case. The United States has fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with bandwidth-challenging, life-saving programs developed along the way. Chief among them has been Unmanned Aerial Systems, introduced in 2003 and evolving into the military’s most important and immediate generator of image and video – full-motion, 3-D and other –intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

Commercial SATCOM has accounted for as much as 80 percent of the solution to meet the ever-increasing need for bandwidth, often bolstering military capability on short notice to conduct operations. Recently Intelsat General President Kay Sears looked back on a specific example of this kind of flexible service.

Commercial SATCOM anticipates a continuing role in helping the military meet its wideband challenges and is working toward a future of increased capability, with the launch of the first in a constellation of Intelsat General EpicNG satellites in 2016.

Beyond that is an understanding in Congress that the old way of purchasing bandwidth piecemeal through one-year contracts should be replaced with a system that acknowledges the need for long-term planning with the commercial industry. This would reduce costs for the military, drive the development of additional commercial capabilities to address government-specific requirements and offer stability for both parties.

Lt. Gen. Mann talks in the interview about requiring a “ten-fold increase … in bandwidth support to the warfighter,” but in fact the need for more commercial SATCOM support grows with the addition of every program. The Army’s War Information Network-Tactical is built upon commercial capability, as is Blue Force Tracker (BFT). The foundation for both came about because of the limits of military bandwidth, as opposed to the consistently reliable commercial sector.

Just below the radar but on the horizon, is the Holy Grail of Army ISR: the Open Geospatial Consortium GeoPackage. This will provide open standards to facilitate building out the back end of an infrastructure to feed the front end of ISR mobility for the tactical unit. GeoPackage is a giant step in delivering data to, and receiving data from, smartphones and other mobile devices carried by soldiers at the pointed end of conflict. It’s data that can save lives.

That mobile capability will be an immense challenge to current and planned WGS bandwidth, and it’s clear that Mann is being challenged to hit a moving target – one that could well stay ahead of capability far into the future.

It’s the reason that commercial SATCOM has to be part of the bandwidth equation going forward – because of the nature of war. And of keeping the peace.

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