Last Wednesday, in the middle of the SATELLITE 2017 Conference, SES Government Solutions partnered with Defense One to sponsor an interesting Cocktails and Conversations event entitled, “Space and Satellite in the New Administration.”
Although the event didn’t focus extensively on President Trump and his administration’s impact on space policy, it did bring together senior military space decision makers and satellite industry experts to discuss the future of the US government’s space infrastructure and the constantly-evolving challenges impacting our space assets today.
Participants in the panel discussion included:
- John Hill, the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Of Defense For Space Policy at the Department Of Defense (DoD)
- Todd Harrison, the Director of the Aerospace Security Project and Director of Defense Budget Analysis at the Center For Strategic And International Studies
- Patrick Tucker, the Technology Editor at Defense One and panel moderator
The conversation began with a discussion of the GPS satellite constellation and how it’s become so essential for the U.S. military, effectively enabling previously unthinkable levels of precision when it comes to targeting adversaries and tracking friendly troop movements.
With this constellation so important and mission-critical to today’s military, discussion almost immediately shifted to protecting the constellation in today’s much more contested space domain and environment.
The panelists noted that the GPS constellation has some benefits that not every military satellite constellation has. Namely, the constellation – by its nature – degrades gracefully, and there is baked-in resiliency since there are more satellites in the constellation than currently needed. This helps make the constellation more resilient and makes it more difficult to compromise the capabilities it delivers. They also discussed how utilizing other, similar signals and constellations – such as the Galileo global navigation satellite system – could increase this resiliency even more.
This sentiment was echoed by Mr. Hill, who said, “With GPS, you have a distributed capability, it’s also a proliferated capability. It’s distributed in that you only need four satellites out of the 24 from the constellation to get your signal. But it’s also proliferated in terms of the number of satellites we have up there because these things have a way of not dying. The proliferation takes away the incentives of someone trying to destroy them kinetically.”But resiliency isn’t necessary in just navigation. There are many capabilities that the United States military gets from space and satellites, and these satellites – including communications satellites – need to be up and available for the warfighter on the battlefield with the same reliability as the GPS constellation. In this area, the resiliency that is inherent with the GPS constellation can be a best practice.
Distributing a satellite signal across multiple satellites, and proliferating the number of satellites that can be used to carry a signal, are both effective ways to eliminate an adversary’s ability to compromise the capability they deliver. Mr. Hill illustrated this point when he said, “What can I do to reduce the incentives to attack a constellation? I would just assume take the thought out of [an adversary’s] mind because they realize that it’s not going to work since the Americans have multiple approaches to this.”
But the military’s SATCOM constellation doesn’t have the baked-in resiliency that the GPS constellation does. There simply aren’t enough MILSATCOM satellites in the WGS constellation to replicate the level of resiliency that exists in the GPS constellation.
However, there are enough commercial satellites in orbit across all of the disparate COMSATCOM providers and satellite operators to deliver this resiliency to the military.
By increasing the use of COMSATCOM services from its industry partners and providers, the military can effectively replicate the level of resiliency it enjoys with the GPS constellation for its communications satellites. It can even replicate the desired effect of diversifying navigation signals by using other constellations, such as Galileo, by relying more heavily on COMSATCOM providers.
But the benefits of partnering with the satellite industry don’t end at resiliency and redundancy. There is also the benefit of harnessing private industry’s innovation and technologies.
The discussion at the Defense One event took an interesting turn when the panelists began comparing the capabilities of private industry and the federal government. What they concluded was that the private space industry has shifted gears and sped past the federal government when it came to innovating new space capabilities and technologies.
According to Mr. Hill, “[We have] to recognize the point, as technology evolves and democratizes – maybe even commoditizes – that there are pieces of it where the commercial demand – the commercial market – starts driving the innovation. The trick for the DOD is to figure out…where we have ceased to be the innovator and driver, and the commercial side is now that – and how do we capture that and bring it in.”
Noting that the end user – the warfighter – doesn’t necessarily care where their capabilities come from, or who delivers them, just that they work when they’re needed, the panelists agreed that COMSATCOM usage should increase. By leveraging COMSATCOM more aggressively, the military can get access to more bandwidth and deliver more capabilities quickly, while also taking advantage of the advanced technologies that the industry is already embracing.
In order to accomplish this, COMSATCOM services need to become more integrated into the military’s wider SATCOM architecture. That sentiment was shared by Mr. Hill, who said:
We need to figure out how to better take advantage of what everyone else is doing better in space. How do you incorporate the commercial system into your architecture and do it as a more natural part of your process? How do we look at what’s happening in the commercial communications area – with GEO, MEO and LEO – and how do we architecturally think about using all of those things in a way such that the ship on the sea, or soldier in the field, or plane in the sky doesn’t know or care where the communications is coming from, just that the terminal they’re using is working?
Although those questions are still being pondered across the military and DoD, one thing is certain – the commercial satellite industry is now the innovator in space, and the next important step for the military is figuring out how best to leverage the services of commercial providers.
To watch a video from the Defense One event click HERE. To learn more about the shifting role of the COMSATCOM in military operations, click the following links: