Preparing for the Unexpected in Space

There is a common thread through all of the speculation – informed and otherwise – about future conflicts on the global stage: Expect the unexpected. It’s an axiom built upon lessons learned over centuries of conflict, but it leaves an important question: How do you prepare for the unexpected?

The question was asked and answered by Skot Butler, Intelsat General’s Vice President for Satellite Networks and Space Services, who presented at the 17th annual Global MilSatCom symposium in London in November.

The commercial satellite community has been preparing for the unexpected globally for years in partnership with the military. Examples include the Skynet fleet public-private partnership in the UK, the SES-Luxembourg joint venture to build and operate a commercial satellite with military frequencies, and Intelsat’s UHF payload for the Australian Defence Force.

Cases are being forged in the U.S., where there is a long history of leasing commercial SATCOM for military and government needs. Conversations are ongoing about the commercialization of WGS flight operations, part or all of the Air Force Satellite Control Network and even the future Wideband space system itself. In the conversations, there are challenges.

Gen. John Hyten, who heads Air Force Space Command, said on December 8 that he is encouraging the use of “resilient capacity” when planning future space architectures. In that, he wants an analysis of how space capabilities operate through an integrated, combined, and joint threat to continue to provide support to the warfighter. That analysis will have to include commercial capability that aligns with DoD needs.

“It’s up to our community of operators, bus and payload manufacturers, cyber and Information Assurance experts … in partnership with those in government who are responsible for the next-generation architecture of military satellite communications, to ensure that this transition – whatever its final form may be – ultimately delivers the commanders and warfighters the rapid, secure, and resilient communications capabilities upon which modern warfare so heavily relies,” Butler said.

To do so, commercial satellite providers have some inherent advantages:

  1. Speed of fielding: With an emphasis on technology development, coupled with a future of reusable rockets, domestic engines and rapid range turns, and with a movement toward modular satellite bus design, industry is trending toward a just-in-time COMSAT model. It’s a game-changer in supporting a troop surge or any military response.
  2. Rapid technology adoption: The commercial satellite industry needs to be designed into future military satellite architectures to fully realize the potential of a commercial-military partnership. Commercial is now moving to meet the capabilities the military expects of its own systems. As an example, by 2020, commercial satellites will have security features, such as nulling and beam forming, and laser and software defined payloads as standard fare.
  3. Resiliency through distribution: a combination of commercially hosted payloads, small free-flyers and traditional capacity leases may be required because a one-size-fits-all solution is neither practical nor usually possible for the complex needs of the military. Being open to the variety of architectures that commercial can provide can increase mission security.

As an example of the innovation more commercial involvement could bring, the 10th Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) satellite is scheduled to become fully operationally capable (FOC) in 2017, more than a decade after the first went aloft and at least 15 years after the design phase.

“A program that will take close to two decades from design to FOC naturally carries the burden of outdated technology and capacity limitations, which a capability built on a commercial model would not,” Butler said.

Intelsat’s EpicNG, the upcoming high-throughput satellite network, is built on the same bus as WGS and the first of at least seven will be launched next year on a standard three-year commercial timeline.

Considering the rapid development of technology and of the capabilities of our emerging global space competitors, as well as the unpredictable nature of conflict, it’s clear that commercializing wideband communications is an idea whose time has come.

As important, this year has shown that the commercial sector provides value added to terrestrial satellite operations, with the military looking toward it for “smarter use of scarce dollars,” Butler said. He offered an example of the seven ground infrastructure sites of the Air Force Satellite Control Network sites and their looming modernization and operations bills.

“Meanwhile,” he added, “commercial ground segment operators have existing assets and facilities with available capacity and a range of customer market segments over which they can spread their costs, allowing continuous investment in infrastructure, hardware and software to maximize efficiency and minimize the highest risk element – man in the loop.”

That brought up security. DoD has for several years required satellite bandwidth and services providers to meet a set of some 200 security controls.

“Long before this requirement was levied on us, Intelsat saw the criticality of protecting our networks and began a defense in depth program that focuses on our three pillars of information security: confidentiality, availability, integrity,” Butler said.

The pathway toward coping with an unexpected future starts at the beginning of military satellite programs. The commercial sector must be involved.

“I don’t believe we can identify every possible contingency that might arise during the life of this architecture,” Butler said, “but if we have a resilient, diversified design, we should be well positioned to adapt to these unknowns.”