What the SATCOM Cost Debate Should Be About

The commercial satellite industry has been reporting for duty with the DoD since the first Iraqi conflict in 1991. The issue of affordability and comparisons between the costs of commercial and government-owned space assets has been discussed almost from day one. This hasn’t always been an easy conversation, partly because fundamental differences in how the costs are computed make direct comparisons very difficult.

Lately this conversation has begun to distract from critical decisions the DoD needs to make about the country’s future space architecture. Making the right decisions to increase capacity and control costs for years to come requires a stronger collaboration in space between commercial and DoD, not an increasingly rancorous debate.

Of particular interest are differing opinions on the military side regarding the cost of commercial SATCOM. As detailed in this Space News editorial, some military officials will admit privately that because the government has separate budgets for satellite building, operating and terrestrial networks a true all-inclusive cost comparison is impossible.

In another editorial from Satellite Today, Eron Miller, chief of the services division, comsatcom center at Network Services DISA, admitted that the DoD would not be purchasing any additional WGS satellites beyond the 10 currently budgeted. Miller talked about focusing on what comes next after WGS.

General John Hyten, the new leader of U.S. Air Force Space Command has been addressing this issue as well. In a recent speech at the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Conference in mid-September he said, “We have to figure out how to fight through the challenges we face and still deliver the capabilities that our warfighters absolutely are fundamentally dependent on. We have to do that. It is our sacred responsibility.”

We couldn’t agree more with these sentiments. Rather than a back and forth on disputed cost estimates that are by definition backward looking, let’s look forward to tomorrow’s needs in space. Potential adversaries in space are not standing still, and the DoD needs to be thinking about survivability, resilience, and enhanced capabilities provided through greater technology refresh and increased launch cadence.

An example of this technology innovation is the upcoming wave of new high-throughput satellites (HTS).  The soon-to-be-launched Intelast EpicNG platform of High Throughput Satellite (HTS) satellites is comparable to WGS on steroids.  It’s a totally next-generation system of satellites built by Boeing, the same manufacturer of WGS satellites, but with an additional decade of technological advancements baked in. With the higher-powered Ku-band beams, the EpicNG satellites can provide superior service at the current WGS price point by 2016.

Let’s also discuss the future of protected tactical waveforms.  This new modem technology will promote enhanced anti-jam capabilities at a fraction of the cost of a new generation of terminals.  The commercial space industry is ready to prove to the DoD that we can exceed current broadband performance expectations by a wide margin.

The days of military constellations built over a decade or more with static technology are gone. In the new budgetary reality more constructive approaches are needed that will deliver greater capacity at lower costs.

Decisions need to be made now about our nation’s future space architecture. Let’s have the right kind of conversations that move us forward in a positive direction.

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