Asymmetric Dialogue

Military Requires Global Mobile

Information Systems Technician 2nd Class Austin Vosburg, USN, performs routine maintenance on the USS Zephyr’s commercial broadband satellite program equipment. The maritime family of SATCOM terminals provides high data rate communications to small and large ships.


The impact of world events on military operators in the field have made missions exponentially more demanding, and in tandem, the very simple concept of connectivity has transformed into a complex and challenging task. As new events occur around the globe, military and government users in remote and often hostile environments require instant and reliable connectivity empowered by robust intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensor data. Resilient and secure satellite communications capabilities warfighters rely on also must be accessible at a moment’s notice.
Expectations are high because today’s users grew up in a world of ubiquitous connectivity. As teenagers, they were accustomed to cloud-enabled virtual telecommunication capabilities that facilitated a wide range of applications. As warfighters, they expect this universal access to continue after putting on military uniforms. They thrive in an environment in which satellite communications (SATCOM) perform just like their smartphones.
Access to and distribution of information always and everywhere is now a necessary part of any operation. As a result, SATCOM is widely considered a mission-critical enabler because if systems fail to deliver a seamless high throughput experience, the impact to mission success could be devastating. Users rely on readily accessible and highly agile applications, and SATCOM makes this possible in a secure environment. In addition, industry technology breakthroughs such as high throughput satellites, efficient modems, electronically steerable antennas and small form factor terminals are emerging faster than ever, pushing the envelope further to enhance mobility, connectivity, resiliency, security and capabilities.
Government leaders are increasingly recognizing the value of this innovation and appear more ready and willing to embrace a strategic commercial SATCOM (COMSATCOM) presence, via recapitalization/acquisition overhaul and partnership initiatives. These initiatives include the U.S. Air Force Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) for a follow-on wideband communication system to the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) system.
Through the AoA, unprecedented participation from industry and U.S. allies offers seemingly limitless possibilities for new space, air and ground-layer communications. This effort underscores the urgency for a strong, forward-looking partnership between the government and the satellite industry to ensure available solutions are fully considered as part of any recapitalization process. Future integrated architecture depends on the reach, resilience and technology modernization of COMSATCOM as an essential element of mission assurance.
Recently, the U.S. Defense Department released some conclusions from the AoA that conveyed mixed impressions. On the positive side, the COMSATCOM sector learned about opportunities to expand the use of commercial communication satellites. However, a perceived obstacle was revealed: Some legacy military satellite terminals are not compatible with modern SATCOM technology. It could, according to participants in the AoA study, take decades to replace all 17,000 Defense Department wideband SATCOM terminals currently in the department’s inventory.
Industry continues to make major investments in modular terminals and adaptive modem capabilities compatible with military satellite communications. Rather than allowing a sunk-cost argument supporting historical capability drive the future, it is far superior to take advantage of modern terminal and modem innovations to replace the vertically integrated terminals to rapidly achieve the desired integrated architecture.
In pursuing the completely integrated architecture, the U.S. government cannot think in terms of decades to reach the goal. Gen. John Hyten, USAF, commander, U.S. Strategic Command, noted that the Defense Department must “go fast” and take risks to accomplish advancements more swiftly than the nation’s adversaries.
The  spirit of innovation and risk-taking required to accelerate innovation exists in the United States, especially in the private sector. As Gen. Hyten said, industry develops and fields innovative technology faster–and for a lower cost–than the military. To illustrate the point, the general said that if a commercial company wasn’t able to build and deliver a large modern wideband commercial satellite in less than three years, it would be out of business.
“With the wideband commercial side, why are we  even buying wideband satellites?” the general asked. “Why don’t we have the commercial side, that already built them in three years, go ahead and buy them for us, and we’ll just lease it back or come up with some other arrangement in order to do that?” The same argument holds true for terminals as well, especially with the exponential rate of technological advances.
Industry agrees. By going fast instead of being satisfied with the status quo, warfighters can leverage an optimized, globally managed satellite network that exists today, one that uses a SATCOM-as-a-Service business model designed for global mobility. It provides a critical end-to-end communication infrastructure that a trusted single commercial operator owns and manages. The network includes the space and ground segment elements that deliver globally available and seamless connectivity. Consequently, there’s no need for significant design, engineering and time for integrating terminals, modems, satellites and disparate gateways into a user experience because SATCOM users are familiar with legacy systems.
SATCOM as a Service enables users to instantly plug into a network that supports high bandwidth voice, data and video connectivity. In addition, warfighters would benefit from communications similar to the ubiquity of services enjoyed on today’s smartphones—a seamlessly delivered, assured global experience that follows users wherever they go.
Users also benefit from high-performing reliable voice, data and video throughout the entire mission—during training, while in transit and in the operational area of responsibility—no matter the geographical environment. They can count on 99.9 percent reliability over a secure satellite and ground network. Products and services are supported 24/7/365 for both network and life-cycle management.
Industry continues to invest ahead of needs in technology advancements, capabilities and security. When the operator implements and tests new technological improvements, users simply connect and realize the enhanced operational benefits without additional investments. This enables the desired flexibility, security and cost-efficiency that allows government users to augment their legacy military SATCOM systems when needed.
In civilian life, customers grow frustrated when they experience buffering while watching a video online. They feel a sense of panic if they cannot load up the Waze GPS-based navigation application on their phones. Warfighters executing missions, often at great risk, require the same superior, uninterrupted seamless commercial SATCOM support as consumers have come to expect.
To reach this state of ideal connectivity, solely government-owned and operated military SATCOM such as WGS is neither sufficient nor resilient. This is especially true in situations with competing or contended demand for WGS capacity during geographic or mission-specific scenarios. Building on the foundation of readily accessible, reliable and flexible SATCOM capacity could ensure operational agility and responsiveness.
Industry currently offers advanced SATCOM solutions that are interoperable with military SATCOM and are available on-demand with even greater advancements in the investment stream. A strong, forward-looking partnership between the government and satellite industry is required today to ensure available commercial solutions are fully considered as part of the recapitalization process. Future integrated architecture depends on the reach, resilience and technology modernization of COMSATCOM as an essential element of mission assurance.
Unified SATCOM is the path forward with commercial innovation as the foundation supported by modern government business arrangements, including SATCOM as a Service. It is the only way for military users to have the reach, resilience and technology modernization they deserve.
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