WASHINGTON: For more than a decade, the US military has fumbled and groped and stumbled and, gradually, figured out ways to buy a mix of commercial satellite communications and dedicated military satellites so it could communicate and watch video from Predator, Global Hawk, and Reaper drones in theaters where military bandwidth was precious.
For much of the Iraq and Afghan wars, the US could easily buy commercial satellite time or transponders because of a fortuitous glut of satellites covering that region. That glut is fast vanishing. And places like the Pacific — marked by vast distances and relatively little commercial satellite coverage — have posed significant problems. Now the world’s largest commercial satellite operator, Intelsat, is buying Boeing-built satellites called Epic that it hopes — combined with changes in space acquisition and the development of secure radio waveforms — will supply the US military with enormous on-call bandwidth.
Boeing has built the Wideband Global SATCOM satellites (originally known as the Wideband Gapfiller, which was a much more honest name) to help plug those holes. But these satellites had to be built into the military’s acquisition budget and were subject to the Pentagon’s space acquisition system, known for its quality but not its speed. In part because of that slow-moving acquisition system, the technology on the WGS has been relatively quickly superseded.
The six Epic satellites, the first of which is due to launch in the third quarter of 2015, will provide five times the bandwidth equivalent of conventional commercial satellites and up to three times that of WGS satellites, Intelsat General President
a href=”http://www.intelsatgeneral.com/about-us/management-team/kay-sears” target=”_blank”>Kay Sears told me. She believes the military can “slowly transition” to using her birds now that the last of the WGS satellites has launched.
Among the keys to making the military a regular customer of the Epic satellites may be a program called COMSATCOM Pathfinder. On March 7, Air Force Space Command issued its first-ever request for commercial satellite communications to cover Africa. Gen. Willie Shelton, outgoing head of Air Force Space Command, has been pushing these changes, apparently as part of his general push for increasing the numbers and resilience of our military satellite architecture, a policy known as “disaggregation.”
Another key to the military using commercial communication satellites is a secure waveforms: algorithms that make the satellite hop to another frequency when jamming or other interference is detected. Boeing successfully tested the waveform in July last year. Last October, Raytheon successfully used a new modem and a highly secure waveform similar to that protecting communications on the most secure military communications satellites, the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) system used for presidential and nuclear transmissions. Raytheon builds the satellite terminals for AEHF, as well as the terminals used by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), builder and operator of the nation’s spy satellites.
Shelton referred to these capabilities at the National Space Symposium, saying the military could have secure communications at the flip of a switch. He didn’t mention Epic or Intelsat, but the connection seems likely.
A final advantage for Epic, Sears noted, is that it broadcasts on C-, Ka- and Ku-bands, meaning inexpensive commercial satellite terminals can be used, allowing the military to forgo purchase of custom-designed terminals that traditionally arrive late because the services are so bad at coordinating their acquisition. AEHF terminals cost an estimated $30 million a piece, compared to perhaps $30,000 or less for a commercial terminal, Sears said: “The biggest savings will come from the terminal side.”
The military’s new business model is not yet clear: Will they buy data, time on a satellite, access to a range of satellites for a period of time or some new combination? But Sears thinks this will all get settled over the next five years.
“There is still a need for strategic communications” using AEHF or its successors, Sears told me, but she and Intelsat are making a major bet on intelligence and military customers buying those six Epic satellites at what some estimates peg at a cost of roughly $350 million a piece.