2015 was year of transition and promise in space. We finally saw signs that the government demand for commercial bandwidth and services is stabilizing after a steady decline resulting from reductions in U.S. military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the DoD budget challenges following sequestration.
At the same time, we were pleased to see continued acceptance of the key role that commercial satellite operators can play in supporting government operations both in hot zones like the Middle East and in “warm” locales such as the South China Sea. Fresh military leadership and the greater sense of urgency about maintaining U.S. superiority in space have created a climate of greater partnership between commercial operators and government customers, one Intelsat General is confident will continue into 2016.
The diminished communications needs tied to a decrease in “boots on the ground” are being somewhat offset by the increase in airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (AISR) requirements to combat extremist activities in Iraq, Syria and Northern Africa. Commercial capacity continues to be the workhorse connectivity channel for these missions as more combat air patrols are being flown by both the Air Force and Army using various types of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA).
Following a recent trip to the region, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James returned with a clear message from the combatant commanders about the need for increased ISR. Intelsat General stands ready to support this escalating need with our existing wide beam capacity and upcoming, high-throughput satellite (HTS) Intelsat EpicNG platform.
Intelsat will be launching the first of seven announced EpicNG satellites in January, the Intelsat IS-29e. This series incorporates high-performance spot beams to deliver significantly more throughput per unit of spectrum, while retaining the coverage of a traditional wide beam satellite. Unlike Inmarsat GX-GSB and other closed systems, EpicNG can deliver SATCOM data rates of up to 50 Mbps, without requiring any hardware changes to the existing antenna/modem installed RPA platforms which continue to rely on Ku-band for both C2 and ISR data transport.
The open Intelsat EpicNG architecture also allows for any-to-any beam connectivity with one-hop, unlike other HTS star-topology architectures, which demand use of an operator designated and controlled gateway. This design allows dynamic re-configuration of network topologies, providing much greater network redundancy in the event of a cyberattack. The EpicNG satellites also have enhanced interference-mitigation and anti-jamming capabilities that are critical for support of RPA operations in areas controlled by hostile adversaries.
There was important movement on the acquisition reform front this year. Progress was made with the Pentagon’s Pathfinder program, which seeks to define new space acquisition models that will then inform the future government space architecture and the role that commercial satellite operators will play. A number of new concepts are on the table, such as “reverse WGS,” where the military would buy a single wideband commercial satellite, but then get access to an operator’s global fleet of satellite capacity.
Such innovative thinking will lead to new, affordable approaches for how the government acquires wideband communications capacity in the future and builds a resilient architecture.
Another development this past year was creation of the Commercial Integration Cell (CIC), established as a pilot program to improve information sharing and collaboration between DoD and commercial satellite operators. Personnel from commercial companies are assigned to sit alongside military personnel at the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) as a means of enhancing the commander’s situational awareness of the space domain and developing tactics and procedures for combined operations.
John Hyten, Commander of Air Force Space Command, has directed the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) to consider ways of shifting routine operational tasks such as bus operations to the commercial industry. The main goal is re-focusing critical operational resources on battle management, rather than routine satellite operations. This year, Intelsat General responded to several RFI’s that would clearly demonstrate the benefits of the company’s five decades of satellite operations experience and the resulting delivery of efficiencies.
For example, flying the WGS fleet of satellite buses would fit extremely well into Intelsat’s current operations process as we currently the exact same bus is flown with our own fleet. It’s been said 2016 will be the year this happens – we hope those voices are correct. Other opportunities which are being explored for commercial off-load include single satellite missions and test satellites where the cost of standing up a separate operations center is not feasible.
SMC is also investigating how to augment the Air Force Satellite Control Network (AFSCN) with commercial ground stations, thereby increasing the resiliency of that network and potentially replacing older sites with commercial teleports.
There was success last year with other governments as well. Intelsat General was awarded a five-year contract, plus an additional five years in options, from a Western Canadian Province to provide Ku-band capacity in support of their communications network providing satellite-based, wide area radio communications for various government agencies. This customer had previously been using another satellite provider, but when the requirements were expanded to include the support of national public safety broadband networks, IGC resulted in being the best solution for their connectivity needs.
Much of the progress this past year was driven by a combination of very progressive thinkers who are in key leadership roles in the Pentagon, at Air Force Space Command and in Congress. These include Doug Loverro, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy; General Hyten; and Congressman Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma, a member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee.
These leaders realize budget constraints require the government to be more thoughtful about space acquisition, but at the same time they understand that the space threat environment is changing rapidly. There is urgency in figuring out how to balance the increasing congested and contested threat environment with affordable solutions.
Satellites like those in Intelsat General’s new HTS Intelsat EpicNG constellation, will bring higher performance and capabilities at lower cost per bit to the government communications domain. Solutions that are cost-effective can be provided, freeing government resources to invest in critical military applications that leaders like General Hyten need to implement in the evolving threat environment.
The U.S. government is learning how to spend money for space more effectively, in a period of unparalleled changes to the space environment. Intelsat General and the broader commercial industry are going to be major contributors to solutions enabling greater throughput, resiliency and reconstitution of capabilities. Space is a much more congested and contested theater than in past decades. Working together, we can ensure that the DoD’s space capacities remain second to none.