The Future of Military Satellite Communications During Austere Times

Highly scrutinized defense budgets and fallout from the across-the-board spending cuts will cause new satellite procurements by the Department of Defense (DoD) to ultimately fail. As such, the Pentagon should leverage existing commercial satellites and not build out new programs.

This was one of the key insights that Todd Harrison, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), shared in a recent National Defense article about military space programs needing a new direction.

While the article discusses a wide variety of topics – including increased satellite communications demands, cybersecurity and an acquisition process that is “out of touch” – the idea of how to best meet military mission goals in a time of austerity resonated clearly.

Harrison’s cited the cancellation of the Transformational Satellite Communications System (TSAT) program, which was a global communications network that would serve the DoD, NASA and the Intelligence Community (IC).  While the high cost at $26 billion and developmental delays derailed the program, funding instability was actually the main driver for its cancellation.

Since the cancellation of TSAT in 2009, Harrison said the DoD has focused on a “buy more of what we have” strategy and that this is a good thing.  According to a recent CSBA study, the organization is recommending against the military starting any new programs along the lines of TSAT.

If the DoD is going to take this approach, then it should consider more closely working with commercial providers on long-term acquisition strategies, as well as leveraging existing commercial capacity and diversifying with hosted payload offerings from commercial companies.  As we have highlighted before, hosted payloads provide a highly effective means of both creating a state-of-the-art, diverse space architecture and getting capabilities into space quickly at a low cost.  

While the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee approved $4.5 billion in spending to cover shortfalls caused by sequestration in military training and equipment maintenance programs, the reality is that the U.S. government will be facing an austere budget climate for the long-term. 

By focusing on existing commercial satellites and planned constellations, the DoD will be able to better contain costs overall. Although we are living in a resource-stretched time, the need for effective satellite communications will continue to grow and the U.S. national security mission must be supported at all times. 

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