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MILSATCOM and COMSATCOM – why they’re better together

In my previous post on the Government Satellite Report I talked about the benefits the government can realize from embracing commercial solutions. I also addressed one of the main reasons why the government and commercial industry don’t always work well together.

Commercial solutions helps the military  embrace innovative technologies within their organization more quickly than if they tried to build them themselves. Unfortunately, commercial companies have a bad habit of trying to force the government to change their requirements to meet the specifications of their products – not change their products to meet the government’s requirements.

However, I did provide an example of a case study where a government and a commercial service provider worked together to tailor a commercial solution to the specific requirements of the government –the GovSat-1 satellite, a public-private partnership between the Luxembourg Government and SES. This satellite is effectively commercially-owned and operated, built to meet the unique specification and needs of a government– utilizing the X and mil-Ka frequency bands relied upon by governments and featuring the latest in satellite technologies.

While GovSat-1 is an incredible example of how commercial industry can listen to government requirements and produce a product that meets their needs, it brings up interesting questions. Why does the government need a commercial WGS satellite? Why not just use commercial satellites to fill their communications requirements?

The answer to that involves the inherent differences between MILSATCOM and COMSATCOM satellites and frequencies. So, let’s take a deeper dive into the pros and the cons of both, and it will become increasingly obvious why a commercial government satellite is the best of both worlds for the military.

MILSATCOM: safer, reliable but limited
Despite what we discussed in my last article – that WGS satellites are spacecraft that were designed two decades ago and feature older technology – there are technical benefits to military satellites.

First, there are the technical advantages of operating at the X band frequency. Frequencies below ~10 GHz are not as susceptible to the effects of atmospheric attenuation. This means almost completely clear-sky operation no matter whether you are in a high rain zone or in a dusty desert.

With only ten WGS satellites in orbit, there is less chance of adjacent satellite interference. This means that more power can be put down from each satellite without fear of interfering with other, adjacent satellites (or being interfered with by other satellites). This higher power results in a stronger signal on the ground that further overcomes attenuation from environmental factors, increases throughputs and improves link reliability.

The benefits of MILSATCOM aren’t just technical, there are also operational benefits. All of the individuals operating military satellites are trained professionals. There are no commercial providers or amateurs potentially gumming up the works with miss-pointed antennas, overdriving power amplifiers or being on the wrong frequencies. Ultimately, the spectrum for MILSATCOM is “quieter,” and there is less chance of an unskilled operator inadvertently causing interference. This alone can significantly increase the reliability of MILSATCOM.

But it’s not all positives when it comes to MILSATCOM. There are some reasons why military satellite isn’t always the best option.

First, there’s the issue of compatible terminals and ground infrastructure. Many military users – especially allied partners – don’t have equipment that can work for military frequency bands. The number of military terminals is limited, and the price of them can be exorbitant. This is why many of our allied partners own commercial terminals and prefer to use commercial frequencies.

Then, there’s the issue of capacity. There are only ten WGS satellites in orbit. Those satellites are not the extremely high capacity, high throughput satellites that are currently being built and launched by commercial satellite operators, which means capacity is extremely limited.

Should a military user need or want WGS satellite capacity, chances are they’re going to have to wait in line. If a VIP needs that capacity, or a higher priority mission requires it, there’s a good chance that they’ll have to make do without it, or at least without everything they need.  One significant limitation is the restricted use of small terminals on WGS.  This makes communications on the move, drones and other mobile platforms more compatible with commercial frequencies.

COMSATCOM: abundant, flexible but less secure

There are hundreds of commercial satellites in orbit around the earth right now. Each of those satellites represents an opportunity for the military to get the bandwidth and capacity they need for every mission – without exception. However, there are reasons why the military may be reluctant to utilize COMSATCOM for mission communications and connectivity.

First, there’s the issue with environmental attenuation. Commercial satellites operating at higher frequencies can have their signals deteriorated or denied by rain and other environmental factors. That can be a problem for the military since many missions can’t wait until the rain clears up. On an annual basis, atmospheric attenuation only creates ~15 minutes of downtime per day on average, depending on the frequency band.

Commercial satellites are much closer together than military satellites.  This means that operating conditions require accurate antenna pointing and disciplined operations to prevent accidental interference.  The sharing of a commercial satellite with these non-military users, and the perceived higher incidence of accidental interference leads many military personnel to presume that commercial satellites are less reliable and less secure.  I’ll talk more about the myths of using commercial satellites for military applications in a future post.

All that being said, the sheer number of commercial satellites provides flexibility, diversity and an overall increase in service reliability. If a signal is jammed or denied, there are other satellites that the military can roll onto that won’t be jammed or denied if spare capacity and coverage are available. It’s also harder for an adversary to find the specific satellite that our military is using since there are so many to choose from.

Commercial satellite is an incredible, viable adjunct for the military. But there will always be military leaders that want and need the increased security and reliability of military satellites for their mission-critical communications requirements. And that’s one reason why GovSat-1 is such an effective solution.

GovSat-1 gives the military the security and reliability of MILSATCOM with the availability, innovative technology and accessibility of COMSATCOM, making it a great tool for augmenting the military’s existing satellite infrastructure.

In my next post on the Government Satellite Report, I’ll look at some of the use cases of MILSATCOM and what it can deliver to mobile warfighters.

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