Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the SATELLITE 2018 Conference, which was conveniently located in the Government Satellite Report’s hometown of Washington, DC. Each year, this conference brings together executives from across the satellite industry – including satellite providers, equipment manufacturers and others – to discuss the evolution of the industry, new advances in technology and the future of space.
Much like in previous years, SATELLITE 2018 also featured a government track, with a handful of government-focused panel discussions and keynote addresses about the current state of satellite across the federal government and United States military, and some of the ways satellite use and acquisition across the federal government is changing.
These government-focused sessions covered a wide range of topics from the use of satellite in emergency response to the evolution of on-orbit servicing. However, there was one common theme that ran across all of them – regardless of topic or speaker. That theme was “Change.”
The Recapitalization of Satellite Resources
Right now – in 2018 – we’re seeing the confluence of multiple trends in space and satellite that have the potential to redefine the industry, introduce immense new capability to the user, and revolutionize how the satellite industry and federal government partner to overcome communications and connectivity challenges.
However, that could potentially be squandered away should the industry and the government not take essential steps towards changing how they interact and do business.
This sentiment was echoed during a panel discussion featuring multiple industry executives and Norman Yarbrough, an Operations Research Analyst within the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (DASD) for C3, Cyber, and Business Systems at the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). During this panel discussion, which was entitled, “Adapting the Government-Commercial Satcom Relationship for the 21st Century,” the speakers each shared how the industry is at an interesting place with tremendous potential for change and exciting new partnerships between industry and the government.
Each of the industry panelists echoed the fact that the military is currently facing a recapitalization of their satellite resources – a result of multiple satellite constellations coming up on their end of life. They each discussed how a wideband analysis of alternatives (AoA) in the works within the United States Air Force which puts the military in a position to make several important satellite decisions.
Chief among these decisions is the role that commercial satellite services will play in military satellite infrastructures moving forward.
Looking to Industry for Innovation
The satellite industry has made it clear over the past few years that their services could and should become a larger part of the military’s satellite networks and infrastructures moving forward. Their reasoning is both clear and valid – industry is now the innovator in space, and a greater reliance on satellite communication providers could help the military overcome some of the largest satellite challenges that they’re currently facing – including a need to better secure and protect satellites and satellite communications, and a need to meet ever-increasing bandwidth demands and requirements.
The role of commercial satellite providers as innovators is ultimately a result of the requirements of their business and the speed at which they operate. While military satellite programs can take decades to plan, design, build and launch satellites, industry needs to move faster. New commercial satellites are being built and launched constantly, and this rhythm means that new satellite technologies will invariably be available onboard commercial satellites well before purpose-built government satellites.
This was further reflected in the comments from Mr. Yarbrough, who said, “We look to industry to be our mission partner. To provide the goods and services that we need to meet national security requirements. We look to them for the innovation of the future to help us better meet those needs.”
As the industry leaders on this panel noted, advancements in commercial satellites – including the launch of High Throughput Satellites (HTS) – and the introduction of new commercial satellite constellations at lower orbits – including MEO – means that higher bandwidth and lower latency connections to practically anywhere on the globe are becoming increasingly available.
At a time when the DoD is looking to establish a path forward with its satellite infrastructure – industry is evolving and bringing previously unheard-of capabilities to market. The stage seems set for industry and military to come together to bring these advanced capabilities to bear for the warfighter but concerns and challenges remain.
Improving the Mission While Providing Better Protection
Commercial satellites can also deliver benefits to the military in many ways. The proliferation and disaggregation of military satellite communications across multiple commercial satellites and networks – and across multiple orbits – can only help increase their resilience and assurance. Many of these satellites also feature built-in protections against attempts to disrupt them – including defenses against jamming.
This need for increased resilience and more assured communications was also reflected by Mr. Yarbrough, who claimed that, “I’m always going to come back to the warfighter. That’s what everything we want to do is about. We want to deliver them the benefits that we’re talking about…the ability to have assured communications…”
Enabling the warfighter is the ultimate focus for the DoD – ensuring that they have access to the solutions that they need, the tools they require to accomplish the mission and the services that are going to improve mission success – while improving their own survivability.
Both industry and government panelists agreed that increased testing, communication and information sharing will ease the way for increased collaboration into the future. Both sides also seemed confident that many of these challenges can be overcome, and that a new generation of warfighter will soon go into battle with a new generation of IT enabled devices, connected via the most advanced satellite communications services.
If there was one overarching theme at SATELLITE 2018, it was change. A shift and evolution in how the military approaches satellite seems imminent, and the role of COMSATCOM providers in military networks seems poised to increase.
MEO and HTS constellations are the latest commercial innovations being embraced by the federal government, capable of delivering fiber-like bandwidth to practically anywhere on the planet. For additional information of these solutions, download the following resources: